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Coskata Chooses Site for Demo Syngas-to-Ethanol Plant

Coskata will use WPC plasma torches for the initial gasification of feedstock. Coskata proprietary microorganisms will ferment the cooled syngas to ethanol. Click to enlarge.

Coskata Inc., a developer of syngas-to-ethanol technology, has announced the location of a 40,000 gallon per year cellulosic ethanol pilot plant. The $25 million project will be located at the Westinghouse Plasma Center in Madison, PA, the current site of a pilot-plant gasifier owned and operated by Westinghouse Plasma Corporation (WPC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Alter Nrg Corp.

The plant, located about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is expected to begin delivering ethanol in early 2009 utilizing a variety of input materials, including woody biomass as well as agricultural and industrial wastes. General Motors, a strategic partner and investor in Coskata (earlier post), will use the next generation ethanol for testing in flex-fuel vehicles at its Milford, Mich., Proving Grounds.

Coskata has been eager to reach this milestone, because it will be a significant demonstration before building our first commercial plant that we can produce ethanol from non-food based sources for less than $1 a gallon. This facility is being built with some of the leading gasification technology, supplied by Alter NRG, and in one of the most progressive states for next generation ethanol.

—Bill Roe, president and CEO of Coskata

Coskata announced in February that it will commission a full-scale, 50 million - 100 million gallon-per-year commercial plant by the year 2011. This facility is being planned in parallel with the construction of the demonstration facility and is expected to break ground this year.

Coskata leverages proprietary microorganisms and efficient bioreactor designs in a three-step conversion process that can turn virtually any carbon-based feedstock into ethanol, from anywhere in the world. The three steps are:

  1. Gasification. Carbon-based feedstock is converted into syngas using well-established gasification technologies. In the Madison demo plant, plasma torches will super heat feedstock to 1,600°F (871°C), which creates a synthesis gas consisting of carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

    At its commercial scale plants, Coskata intends to use WPC Marc-11 plasma torches, which have been proven in metallurgical and waste-to-energy commercial applications throughout the world. The Marc-11 torches have more than 500,000 hours of operation in industrial settings, including a GM foundry in  Defiance, Ohio.

    A smaller version, the Marc-3, will be used in Coskata’s Madison facility. A WPC Marc-3 has been used in Japan to gasify municipal solid waste for more than five years.

  2. Fermentation. The syngas is cooled to about 100°F (38°C). Coskata’s proprietary microorganisms convert the cooled syngas into ethanol by consuming the carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) in the gas stream.

  3. Separation. Pervaporation technology separates and recovers the ethanol.

Plasma is the term given to a gas that has become ionized—i.e., one where the atoms of the gas have lost one or more electrons and have become electrically charged. Man-made plasma is formed by passing an electrical discharge though a gas such as air or oxygen. The interaction of the electric discharge and the process gas causes the temperature of the gas to increase significantly often exceeding 5,500°C (10,000°F).

WPC’s plasma torches can be fed with process gases of widely varying chemical composition including air, oxygen, nitrogen, argon and others. WPC’s plasma technology can increase the energy of the process gas to between two to ten times higher than conventional combustion.

Coskata’s process for ethanol reduces carbon dioxide lifecycle emissions by as much as 84% compared to conventional gasoline; and has the ability to generate up to 7.7 times as much energy as is required to produce the ethanol, as verified by Argonne National Labs in a well-to-wheel analysis. Additionally, Coskata’s process uses less than a gallon of process water to make a gallon of ethanol, compared with three gallons or more required by other processes.


Neilen Marais

My only question is... If you can efficiently produce the syngas, why not just feed it to an FT process and generate whatever you want? Just call Sasol :)


Well Coscata probably thinks that their micro-organism approach will be less costly than FT processing. It could also be less polluting because it does not depend on any catalysts as does the FT process. Even if it turns out to be $1.5 to $2.0 per gallon of ethanol it will be a very profitable business. Ethanol currently sells for $2.5 per gallon and if crude oil goes further up so will the price of ethanol.

One possible disadvantage of using syngas based approaches is that it destroys the biomass completely so that the residuals from the syngas production such as ashes have little or no value at all in any other use. The enzymatic approach to biomass ethanol is much gentler and delivers valuable ‘distillers grains’ in addition to the ethanol. However, it remains to be seen whether it can also be made cost efficient.


This is 6 times the EROEI I believe Argonne gives to corn ethanol. If gasification is the breakthrough step it seems odd though to stay with fussy microbes, distillation or pervaporation and a low energy alcohol. No mention of returning mineral nutrients to the soil.

Alex Kovnat

The significance of the Coskata process is that previously, the only chemical you could synthesize from carbon monoxide + hydrogen was methanol, which years ago appeared to be the fuel of the future. Unfortunately methanol is corrosive, with low energy content, and engines so fueled require a lot of help to start in cold weather.

There are catalysts which can synthesize higher alcohols, but from what I've read they don't work out as well as we would like. The Coskata process synthesizes ethanol as specifically as we could, previously, only synthesize methanol. Since ethanol is less obnoxious regarding corrosion and has higher energy content than methanol (though still not as high as gasoline), the Coskata process is a significant breakthrough.


Go Coskata! I hope this process works as they claim, and can be effectively scaled up.


One thing to keep in mind.

Where is all this biomass (supposedly low carbon) going to come from?

Harvey D


Most of it could come form industrial, agricultural, forestry and domestic wastes.

As far as using domestic wastes it could turn out to be a blessing for most communities with garbage/waste disposal problems.

Many communities would pay up to $150/Tonne and even haul it free to the local gasification site.

The extremely reduced non-toxic residues could be disposed much easier.


The technology, specifically the synthesis using microorganisms, is good. I can't see any negatives to using it on waste cellulose streams from corn and sugar production.
Your complaint is with the likely feedstock, but that is a problem with legislation. Carbon trading (or better still a carbon tax) is the appropriate tool to solve this problem.


Syntec uses catalysts and gets more than 100 gallons per ton. I question using plasma, but if you are going to do refuse then I suppose that is called for.


A strong win for cellulosic. Coskata has set a high standard for this second generation of biofuels. I would think that savvy alt-energy businesses would start to look very closely at municipal waste streams, agra, and livestock waste - the advantage here appears to be plasma's ability to burn anything containing carbon. And that would include the world's stupefyingly huge landfills.

richard schumacher

I would today happily pay a premium for vehicle fuel in proportion to the fuel's reduced fossil carbon content, up to $5 per gallon for artificial fossil-free gasoline.

There already exist utility pricing arrangements for 100% wind power which do not require that every delivered electron actually comes from a wind turbine, only that the amount of wind power paid for actually is produced and delivered somewhere. A significant number of consumers today willingly pay a big premium for fossil-free electricity; surely something similar is possible for retail reduced-fossil gasoline and Diesel fuel. Along with the actual production this would require point-of-purchase pricing options and data collection. The purchaser's car would burn some number of fossil carbon atoms, but all the fossil-carbon-free fuel paid for actually would be manufactured and used somewhere to the world’s benefit. We need a market study!


Green power in California cost about 2 cents more per kwh and people were on a list to get it. There was not enough to go around because there was no investment money to develop it. Then Enron came in and gamed the system and all the Green Power companies gave up and left the state.


My electricity plan is a 100% purchase of wind power.

In the past 2 years since I went on it, there have been multiple months where the premium I pay (it's itemized on my bill) has been effectively $0 (less than a dollar).


"Where is all this biomass (supposedly low carbon) going to come from?" GreyFlcn
here's one possibility


I look at plants as big solar collectors. We need to keep the forests and land in good shape, but I think we can get some energy from it too.

Healthy Breaze

I wonder how this compares to the FT processes that use novel catalysts to turn syngas into alcahols?

If I remember right, one of the challenges with plasma-syngas systems is that you want the waste stream to be pretty dessicated, otherwise you spend a lot of energy heating water that doesn't actually release any stored energy.

This is also a problem for any FT system, I think, because you need to process the cellulosic feedstock in such a way that it is pretty dry by the time it gets to you, for optimum efficiency. I would imagine that would slow down the cycle from harvest to output, and increase the land required, and possibly mean you wouldn't want to run your facility in rainy seasons.


They didnt bring up that the waste is not going to
rot and put methane into the air


I don't know if anyone has in mind digging up land fills or just using what goes into them now. If you could dig up a land fill and convert it to fuel that would really be something.


It is not the most economical waste stream but what's the difference between digging up huge swaths of oil sand and trucking it to a refinery and doing the same with half digested landfill? This is done all the time to clean up volatile leakage, spills, and ground cover contaminants.

Al Fin

Thermochemical production of liquid biofuels is coming within 5 years. Coskata's gasification to fermentation process is a hybrid "bridge technology" that will help get us to cheaper biofuels.

Ethanol is inferior to butanol, but easier to ferment. Soon butanol will be just as cheap to make and biofuels from biomass will not be so easy for the uninformed to kick around.


There is a whole new world of synthetic fuels coming and if we had just stuck with Carter's SynFuel program in the late 70s we would already be there by now.


can you imagine the paperwork required to mine an old landfill?.. it would take years and lots of legal action.. it will never happen unless it is to clean up a leak.

Then again, those old landfills may have suddenly become valuable.. how much recoverable ethanol in an old landfill?


They tap lots of methane from them, but that has its limits. After they tap all the methane, they can dig it up. You do not want that methane venting to the atmosphere, might as well use it for energy.

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