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Photo Tour: Cellulosic Ethanol Plant Comes to California Farm Country

By Leon Kaye

Edeniq has brought Silicon Valley innovation to America’s breadbasket. The ethanol production company is plunked in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, surrounded by farms and orchards growing some of America’s most valuable crops. A short hop away from the company’s plant in Visalia are wide swaths of land bursting with almonds, pomegranates, cotton citrus and stone fruit - not to mention corn, most of which Tulare County farmers grow to provide animal feed for cattle and poultry.

Corn-based ethanol sparks hot debate on both the right and the left, with some questioning the pros of biofuels over petroleum and others concerned about land use in a time of drought. What makes Edeniq a compelling story - and an intriguing place to visit - is how Edeniq’s technology is extracting more energy out of what was once mere waste. Corn stalks and leaves, or corn stover, also have the potential to provide energy, specifically cellulosic alcohol. If Edeniq can succeed in scaling and ramping up its production of cellulosic alcohol, the future of energy production in the San Joaquin Valley is an exciting one. After all, those aforementioned crops create plenty of waste: pomegranate seeds and pith don’t have much use, only so many almond shells can be used for animal bedding or feed and waste from cotton gin is also a pesky problem. Some of the agricultural waste is composted or buried, but too much of it is simply burned, and therein lies one factor behind the region’s noxious air quality.

Cellulosic alcohol generated at a cost-effective rate has been one holy grail of clean energy advocates. Many technologies exist: The problem is finding ones that can scale. The crops that work best have high embedded energy. The challenge is analogous to why we eat certain foods. If you are training for a marathon, you are best off eating a pound of pasta before that run - not a pound of kale; your body needs the high caloric potential of the carbs to power your run. Plants have varying degrees of embedded energy, and the ones that have the highest potential as feedstock for biofuels produce the highest embedded energy per input of land and water. There is unlocked energy potential in the cellulose that gives some plants, notably switchgrass, their strength make them good candidates for feedstock for bioplastics as well as biofuel.

Edeniq’s advantage lies in its “Cellunator” milling technologies. The process refines any non-food plant materials into tiny granular pieces of feedstock that then easily convert into sugars and then ethanol. Such Cellunators can also work as a “bolt-on” technology that can work at any corn ethanol refinery or any other facility designed to distill cellulosic alcohol. The process is also more cost effective because, while increasing overall yield, the need for those expensive enzymes falls as much as 40 percent. Hence corn ethanol in California and the Midwest becomes a more viable option both financially and environmentally.

For those who enjoy tours of wineries and breweries, a tour of Edeniq’s biorefinery is enjoyable just because of the scents. That is what first impressed me along with the parking lot - I had assumed I would visit a dinky office with only a few cars outside, but the lot was packed and the office was bustling. Outside wafts of fermentation, some sweet, some vinegary, hover over this plant where 60 employees work just a stone’s throw from corn fields.

For now, the plant is more of a research and development hub than a full factory. An enormous lab full of scientists in white coats put in long hours to find the perfect combination of yeast and enzymes that can break down those sturdy plant fibers into fuel. The plant’s capacity right now is 55,000 gallons a year, and the ethanol that Edeniq generates is distributed to larger ethanol producers who integrate the product into their fuels. Most revenues comes from the company's sales and licensing of its technologies  Edeniq’s, and cellulosic alcohol’s, current challenge is price. In order to get wide adoption the average cost must come down from approximately $10 a gallon. The goal for cellulosic ethanol refiners is to punch that price down to a level competitive with standard corn ethanol.

Edeniq is backed by a bevy of venture capitalists including Silicon Valley’s Kleiner Perkins. Grants from the Department of Energy and the California Energy Commission also support the company’s research - the company does not disclose its revenues but the figure the company’s executive team told me was impressive considering the company’s total capitalization. What is most refreshing about Edeniq, however, is that this is a company laden with professionals from around the country who want to focus on what the company has achieved - without talk and promises of “what we are going to do” that too often makes eyeballs roll and investors panic. Cellulosic ethanol is an exciting technology: But, simply put, making it is difficult and complex. The corridor along California’s Highway 99 has a ways to go before it comes close to matching the technology heft that lines other California highways, but companies like Edeniq are doing a solid job building the future of biofuels- and laying a new foundation for the San Joaquin Valley’s future.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. For a few years he received endless press releases from algae biofuel companies promising that they would change the world in six months--but the last one was at least eight months ago. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions via Twitter.

Photos courtesy Leon Kaye.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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