Branching out for fuel
Georgia an early leader in quest to produce ethanol from timber


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 paper industry.

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 as ethanol.

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 commission.

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 shrinking.

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.


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 support 10.

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 more easily.

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 Hawkins.

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.


To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225 or e-mail