“What we’re doing is radically different from what’s been done,” Mark L. Warner says. The 44-year-old is the President and CEO of GCE. The Livingston facility is one of the first in the world to use a gasification process to produce liquid fuels using wood waste, which often comes to GCE as a byproduct of the timber industry. However, one source of wood waste is the city of Hoover, which shipped some of their lawn and yard waste (otherwise bound for a landfill) to Livingston, where it will be made into ethanol and likely sold back to Hoover for use in the city’s Flexfuel vehicle fleet.
But GCE can make fuel from more than just wood. Warner says that industrial byproducts like pulp sludge from paper mills even landfill waste can serve as a feedstock. This is because the GCE process, unlike corn ethanol or cellulosic ethanol processes, does not require sugars from organic matter (which, as in the case of corn, could be detrimental to food production).
“We don’t care if there’s sugar in it or not,” Warner says. “We’re considered cellulosic, quote unquote, only because wood is cellulose. But we don’t have to run wood.”
GCE makes fuel through a gasification process that originated in Germany between the two World Wars. The country’s lack of access to petroleum and the abundance of coal prompted German scientists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch to develop a process to turn coal into liquid fuel. In recent years, the process has been refined and significant leaps in efficiency have been made. Of course, GCE has adapted their system to work with feedstocks a bit greener than coal.
In the process in use at the Livingston plant, a feedstock such as wood is ground up, mixed at a certain density and dried. The wood is then fed into a gasifier, where it is subjected to extreme heat and pressure. This process, called pyrolysis, vaporizes the carbon, oxygen and hydrogen (the building blocks of fuels) in the wood, which turns to a very fine ash. “There’s no combustion,” Warner says. “It goes from a solid to a vapor in about four-tenths of a second. It’s very, very hot.”
The carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, called synthetic gas or syngas, is compressed at pressures of more than 1500 psi. From there, the syngas is piped into a device called a Fischer-Tropsch reactor, where it is combined with a heated catalyst designed specifically to the align syngas molecules into the target fuel. At this point, the fuel is still in the form of a gas. It is then condensed into a liquid, which is sent through a distillation unit.
If ethanol is the target fuel, three other fuels are produced – methanol, propanol and butanol – which are recaptured and reprocessed to produce more fuel. In the future, carbon dioxide will be captured and reused.
“None of the people that are doing gasification can handle carbon dioxide,” Warner says. “It’s a significant portion of the yield, and it’s also a greenhouse gas. We figured out how to capture the CO2, reprocess it and make some syngas out of it.”
The end result is a finished ethanol, ready to be used in any Flexfuel vehicle. The whole process takes just a couple of minutes, and Warner says it yields anywhere from 170 to 200 gallons of fuel per ton of feedstock. Contrast that with corn ethanol, which yields about 80 gallons per ton.
The gasification process GCE uses can also be used to produce gasoline and diesel, certified to the same standards as the fuel you put in your car now. Compared to ethanol, Warner says that “gasoline and diesel are a lot easier to make” due to their chemical properties. But he’s a bit reluctant to talk about it, fearing oil companies might react negatively. “Not a lot of people know about that yet, and we’re trying to be a little quiet about it,” he says.
The Black Belt is the new "wood basket"?
Warner has high hopes for landfill waste as a potential as a feedstock, but he says Southern pine and other woods have performed the most consistently. And there is no shortage of wood byproducts in west central Alabama. The Black Belt is, in general, a rural area and timber processing and paper milling are major industries in this part of Alabama and nearby in Mississippi.
“Within 70 miles of here, there are about 1,100 truckloads of wood every day,” Warner says. An Auburn University study, cited in a 2008 story about the GCE plant in the Sumter County Record-Journal, estimated that Alabama could produce 15 million tons of waste wood annually without increasing logging.
“The wood basket here is just amazing, and it’s an area of the state that desperately needs some help.”
Livingston, where I spent the first 18 years of my life, is a wonderful place to grow up but a hard place to be grown up. In 2000, the per capita income in Livingston was less than $12,000 and 46 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. It is a place that genuinely needs major economic development and good-paying jobs.
Currently, the actual industrial equipment at the Livingston facility occupies a fraction of the cavernous expanse of warehouse it lies in. The plant is being used primarily for demonstration and research and employs only a handful of people. But Warner says the plan is to expand to a full scale facility, which would employ 150 people, and to later build three to four more plants of a similar size in the state.
But before that, Warner and his corporation’s board of directors must secure funding. “It’s a very difficult time to raise money right now, so we’re raising operating capital and big money at the same time,” Warner says. Warner says a small plant could be built at the Livingston site for $25 million, “which sounds like a lot but in the big scheme of things it’s really not a lot of money.” He’s hopeful that there might be funding in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly called the stimulus act, for a project like his.
“This is exactly what stimulus is about,” Warner says, and adds that full-scale plant would take 14 to 18 months to complete. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that Livingston is shovel-ready. We could literally start our project tomorrow and still run the pilot plant for R&D.”
For the time being, the Livingston plant is a small-scale affair, but Warner is still thinking big—“change the world” big.
“If we as a nation choose to be energy independent, and it has to be a choice, we can fuel the whole country off of our own raw material,” Warner said just before I left the Livingston plant. “We’re capable of doing that but we have to choose to do it.”
Write to email@example.com
More pictures from the GCE facility (all photos by Madison Underwood):