First exports of biofuel could leave port this summer|[03/16/08]

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 16, 2008

This summer, the first shipments of ethanol might leave the processing facility planned by Ergon Refining and Bunge North America at the Port of Vicksburg.

A year into its construction, the facility remains abuzz with activity as more than 12 miles of pipe are readied to move the biofuel to a series of huge fermentation tanks.

“Certainly, it’s a wonderful addition to our economic base,” Warren County Port Commission Executive Director Wayne Mansfield said. “It indicates Vicksburg and Warren County’s desirability for this type of industry.”

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Mansfield and others tout its waterside location at Vicksburg Harbor and access to rail and truck transportation as a built-in competitive advantage over plants elsewhere in the United States.

“The market will determine how we ship it,” said plant General Manager Mike Tate, a 12-year Bunge employee who moved over from the multinational company’s grain elevator in Tallulah to run the Vicksburg venture.

“We’re 70 percent complete, and the major equipment is in place, Tate said.

Cost tallies likely will reach more than $100 million by the time it is complete. Production of the crop-based alternative fuel will reach 60 million gallons annually using about 21 million bushels of corn — 900,000 bushels already are stored inside a large, domelike holding space, Tate said.

Job creation is pegged approximately at 40. Plant officials put the number of construction jobs created so far at 340.

In addition to its plans in Vicksburg, Bunge and its partners have announced an ethanol facility in Iowa and biodiesel facilities in Illinois, Louisiana and Kansas.

Ethanol is a flammable, colorless compound — chemically speaking, a primary alcohol with many uses of which petrochemicals is just one. Its use in alcoholic beverages is produced by fermentation involving necessary oxygen and yeast, which under aerobic respiration produces carbon dioxide and water.

Distilled from crops, it becomes usable as fuel, the largest single use of ethanol. Its production worldwide reached more than 13 billion gallons in 2006, with the U.S. and Brazil as the top sources. In 2007, U.S. production reached 6.5 billion gallons.

So-called “flex-fuel” vehicles in the U.S. can run on fuel mixes up to 85 percent ethanol, while similarly-powered cars in Brazil can run on either pure ethanol or pure gasoline.

Brazilian ethanol is sugar-based, while much of the 131 ethanol bio-refineries in the U.S. process it from corn.

While the Bunge-Ergon plant in Vicksburg will be a corn-based operation for the foreseeable future, Tate said the plant’s long-term viability plan is flexible to adjust to market forces and developing research on additional methods to produce ethanol. Some of those include using organic wastes and wood, which officials with Quincy, Mass.-based BioEnergy International LLC plan to process in addition to corn at its Lake Providence, La., plant when production begins in about a year.

“It will be a dry-grind ethanol plant. Corn-based is most efficient,” Tate said, adding the plant’s daily production of about 500 tons of distiller’s grain — co-produced alongside the ethanol — provides a level of versatility and maximizes the joint venture’s customer and client base.

Conflicting research surrounds the current national debate on ethanol. A 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded energy output from corn-based ethanol outpaces energy needed to produce it by about 34 percent. A separate report by USDA and various university researchers detailing research on cellulose-rich switchgrass said net energy production of cellulosic ethanol is five times greater than that used to produce and convert corn.

Increases in food prices, particularly milk, have been cited by environmental groups as a consequence of subsidies for ethanol production.

A release in February by Renewable Fuels Association, the trade group for the U.S. ethanol industry, cited lessening dependence on fossil fuels as an overriding goal in the current debate.

“Biofuels alone are not the silver bullet to the energy or environmental challenges our planet faces. But they do offer a pathway forward,” said RFA president Bob Dinneen.

In a recent state-of-the-industry address, Dinneen said U.S. ethanol production added $47.6 billion to the gross domestic product and employed 238,000 workers.

At a glanceEthanol is a flammable, colorless compound — chemically speaking, a primary alcohol with many uses. Its use in alcoholic beverages is produced by fermentation involving oxygen and yeast, which under aerobic respiration produces carbon dioxide and water.Distilled from crops, it becomes usable as fuel. So-called “flex-fuel” vehicles in the United States can run on fuel mixes up to 85 percent ethanol.