Range Fuels, Inc. has produced cellulosic methanol from the initial phase of its first commercial cellulosic biofuels plant near Soperton, Georgia using non-food biomass. The cellulosic methanol produced from Phase 1 will be used to produce biodiesel. Range Fuels plans to begin production of cellulosic ethanol from the plant in the third quarter this year. The cellulosic ethanol will meet ASTM standards for fuel-grade ethanol, according to the company.

The first phase of the Soperton Plant operations employs Range Fuels’ two-step thermochemical process, which first gasifies non-food biomass such as woody biomass and grasses into syngas. In the second step, the syngas is passed over a proprietary catalyst to produce methanol, which can then be converted in an additional reactor to ethanol.

The Soperton Plant will initially use woody biomass from nearby timber operations, but plans to experiment with other types of renewable biomass as feedstock for the conversion process, including herbaceous feedstocks like miscanthus and switchgrass.

Range Fuels plans to expand the capacity of the plant to 60 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels annually with construction to begin next summer. The Soperton Plant is permitted to produce 100 million gallons of ethanol and methanol each year.

Range received a $76-million grant from DOE to help build a 40 MGY wood-based ethanol plant in 2007. In 2008, it raised more than $100 million through an oversubscribed Series B private financing round. In January 2009, Range was awarded an $80-million loan guarantee from USDA.

In its initial assessment of potential cellulosic ethanol production reflected in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for RFS2, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expected that the largest volume contributions were to come from Range Fuels, and from Cello Energy, a company that uses a catalytic depolymerization technology to produce cellulosic diesel.

However, in the Regulatory Impact Analysis accompanying RFS2, EPA noted that both Range and Cello were delaying or reducing their production plans for this year. In that document, EPA also noted that since Range started up the plant using a methanol catalyst, it did not expect the company to produce qualifying renewable fuel—i.e., cellulosic ethanol—in 2010.

(Based on analysis of market availability, EPA in July proposed a 2011 cellulosic volume that is lower than the EISA target. Earlier post.)

During phase two of the project, currently slated for mid-2012, Range plans to expand production at the Soperton plant and transition from a methanol to a mixed alcohol catalyst, according to the EPA report.