Branching out for fuel
Georgia an early leader in quest to
produce ethanol from timber
TELEGRAPH STAFF WRITER
Timber, once viewed as a source of heating fuel, could be
used to fuel Georgia's cars one day as the state tries to
develop a new market for pulpwood in the face of a weakening
Kenneth Stewart, director of the Georgia Forestry Commission,
says 30 companies have expressed an interest in opening biofuel
plants in Georgia that use pine wood to make biofuel, a
cleaner-burning fuel made from plant matter or animal fat, such
Ethanol is a type of alcohol, made from converting plant
crops into sugars, that can be refined into fuel that burns
cleaner than gasoline.
Middle and south Georgia are likely to see the benefits of
such refineries, because transportation costs for logs are too
high for the plants to be located far from timber supplies.
"This is going to provide new jobs in rural areas that need
them," said Nathan McClure, forest energy director for the
According to a General Bioenergy Inc. report, the Middle
Georgia counties of Bibb, Laurens, Jasper, Upson, Macon and Ben
Hill have some of the greatest amounts of wasted timber in the
state: Tree tops, crooked trees and mill residue that aren't
used when land is logged.
Although corn-based ethanol is the most common and well-known
type - and the one that receives government subsidies - most
studies show that ethanol made from wood chips is more
energy-efficient. Corn-to-ethanol refineries burn fossil fuels
such as coal or natural gas to refine the corn, but
wood-to-ethanol refineries would burn wood to refine the wood.
There are no wood-to-ethanol plants in the United States, so
current research on the process and plant design being conducted
at Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia could yield the
first such refinery in the nation.
The technology has been developed for the different elements
of the process but not integrated, said Art Ragauskas, an
associate professor of chemistry at Georgia Tech.
"Developing this market allows us to create the Silicon
Valley of energy here in Georgia," Stewart said. "This is
potentially the biggest thing that's come along in the timber
industry since pine plywood production."
McClure said the market could help keep property in timber,
keep existing pulp mills open, provide new refinery jobs in
economically drained rural areas and reduce pollution.
Georgia produces more timber than any other state in the
country, mostly in pine pulpwood, but the market for it is
Between 2001 and 2003, the economic impact of the timber
industry in Georgia dropped from $30.5 billion to $20.2 billion,
and employment dropped from 204,000 to 136,000 jobs, according
to statistics gathered by Georgia Tech.
Besides this drop in demand for healthy pulpwood, 19 million
dry tons of waste wood that can't be used by the timber industry
are burned or dumped in landfills each year, Stewart said. If
refined instead, that wood could replace about a fifth of the
gasoline Georgians use a year, he said.
Wood chips from pulp mills and the branches of trees could be
used, although McClure said the industry would need to leave
some unused material from logging sites on the ground to prevent
erosion and provide cover for wildlife.
MODEL FACILITY COMING
The abundance of the wood resource and the sustained increase
in crude oil prices led C2 Biofuels to pursue building an
ethanol refinery, said Roger Reisert, the Atlanta-based
company's president. Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia
are working on developing the refinement process and designing a
plant for the company.
Reisert said the company hasn't pinpointed a location, but it
plans to construct a small model facility in south or Middle
Georgia next year in a location with good road and rail access.
The idea would be to scale up to a full commercial-size plant
that produces 50 million gallons of ethanol a year.
Reisert said capital costs for a commercial plant would
probably run about $200 million. He expressed hope that local
timber landowners will become part owners so they have a greater
interest in the outcome of the venture.
McClure estimated that a plant producing 50 million to 100
million gallons of ethanol would employ 40 to 100 employees.
In the long run, Reisert said C2 Biofuels would like to open
multiple plants in Georgia; he estimated that the state could
Georgia Tech's feasibility and design study is due for
completion by the end of the year, McClure said.
Last week, Xethanol Corp. announced it will be purchasing a
Pfizer pharmaceutical plant in Augusta and converting it to
produce 35 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. This
is the same type of ethanol created by using trees as well as
other types of feedstock.
Ragauskas, with Georgia Tech, said he expects the market to
be further revolutionized in five to 10 years, because by then
scientists might be able to genetically engineer enzymes right
into the timber that would allow it to be processed into biofuel
They could also be engineered to grow more, just as crops
have been. "In the past we've focused only on the parts we eat,
not the mass of the plant," he said.
Researchers at the University of Georgia and a company called
Eprida are also demonstrating how pines can be used to create
hydrogen fuel. In cooperation with the Department of Energy, the
two are conducting a 1,000-hour test run of the new technology.
Eprida then plans to license the process to businesses that want
to build hydrogen plants, said Eprida research chemist Bob
The same equipment can create other products such as bio-oil,
which can be processed into diesel fuel, and ethanol or other
chemicals, said Tom Adams, director of outreach for the UGA
faculty of engineering. Research is also being conducted in
Tifton about how the charcoal byproduct could be used to replace
nitrogen fertilizer, he said.
Biofuels and alternative energy are part of the comprehensive
statewide energy plan being drafted by Gov. Sonny Perdue, said
his press secretary, Shane Hicks. He said the plan will call for
increasing the diversity of fuel types Georgians use.
Hicks said the intent is to avoid shortages caused by
unexpected events such as Hurricane Katrina last year, which
caused long lines at the pump, soaring gas prices and a day of
calling off school in Georgia.