Plant will manufacture fuel alcohol from farm refuse La. refinery will use engineered bacteria to carry out process


JENNINGS, La. -- The plant was opened in 1977 to refine crude oil into gasoline, but when that proved unprofitable, it was converted in 1981 to run on molasses, and then in 1987, on grain. Bankruptcy followed.

Now, with rust on its tanks and pipes and grass growing through the gravel on its paths, the plant is being converted yet again, to make fuel alcohol from agricultural garbage.

The plant's product, ethanol, which can be blended with gasoline to power cars and trucks or used on its own to power modified vehicles, has been produced around the country for years using corn and wheat and other high-quality, high-cost ingredients -- never with economic success.

But the new owners of the plant here, BC International Corp., with a subsidy from the U.S. Energy Department and help from a genetically engineered bacterium, hope they are on the cusp of a new era.

"It is a bio-refinery," said Stephen Gatto, president and chief executive of the company.

Twenty-five years after the beginning of the Arab oil embargo, the Energy Department believes Gatto's company may have a way to replace crude oil with garbage. BC International will be the first to try it on a commercial scale.

"The input costs are close to zero," said Dan Reicher, assistant secretary of energy. "In some cases they are less than zero, because people are paying to get rid of these materials."

If it works, he said, the technology could also reduce the accumulation of gases in the atmosphere that are thought to cause climate change, and could lower smog.

The plant in this south-central Louisiana town will run on bagasse, a part of the sugar cane plant usually considered useless, and rice hulls, a currently useless part of the rice plant. Later, it may digest sawdust as well.

Around the country, energy experts have their eyes on clippings from suburban lawns, prairie grasses and other woody materials as fuel for the new process.

"It's a lot cheaper to grow wood and grass than corn," said John Ferrell, director of the Office of Fuels Development at the Energy Department.

In the current generation of ethanol plants, the fuel is the corn kernel; plants using the new technology could digest the cob and the stalk as well, Ferrell said.

These materials are made of cellulose, which contains large amounts of sugar, the basic ingredient required for alcohol production. But the sugar in cellulose is in a chemical form that traditional fermentation processes, which use yeast, cannot digest.

BC's plant employs a bacterium, KO11, also used in the pharmaceutical industry, to break down the sugars.

The natural bacterium on which KO11 is based likes to eat sugars and produces a chemical called acetic acid. But then came gene splicing.

Dr. Lonnie Ingram, a microbiologist at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, borrowed four genes from another organism, Zymomonas mobilis, to make the bacterium produce alcohol instead.

Around the country, researchers are working with Z. mobilis to find other approaches, but BC International's will be the first commercial plant to make ethanol from woody material.

The plant will take about 18 months to build and will cost $90 million, including $11 million from the Energy Department.

Existing ethanol plants do little to save energy or reduce the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

They can use up to seven gallons of oil or its energy equivalent to produce eight gallons of ethanol, experts say: The coal in power plants and diesel fuel in tractors that plant, fertilize and harvest the corn, and in petroleum-based fertilizer.

But using waste for fuel -- especially waste that might otherwise be burned and in the process dump carbon dioxide back into the air -- could allow production of seven gallons of ethanol from one gallon of oil.

And whatever the feedstock, whether trees or grasses, using it makes room for new growth, which will draw carbon back out of the atmosphere.

This would be true, backers point out, wherever ethanol from cellulose might catch on, especially the Third World, where demand for motor fuel is rising.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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