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ZeaChem searches for a greener coal

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Articles - July 2011
Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Poplars at the GreenWood Resources farm in Boardman. The trees will be processed into liquid fuel, plastic and solid fuel.

Colorado-based ZeaChem is due to begin production at its new cellulosic ethanol factory in Boardman this fall, converting poplar trees into fuel, chemicals and plastic products for global markets.

But that’s not all ZeaChem is planning to do in Boardman. CEO James Imbler says ZeaChem is investigating ways to help Portland General Electric “green up” its Boardman coal plant with a biomass coal replacement made from poplar wood. “It’s  [a highly efficient] product, very good quality, with a consistency that makes it very attractive for some kind of combustion,” says Imbler.

PGE’s Boardman plant is the only coal plant in Oregon, and by far the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. PGE has pledged to stop burning coal there by the end of 2020 and is investigating alternative fuel sources to keep the plant operating. ZeaChem closed a $34 million fundraising round in January 2009. It plans to employ 25 people to operate the Boardman plant at the start and to expand operations over time, aided by a $25 million grant from the Department of Energy and various state subsidies. The company has signed a long-term supply contract with GreenWood Resources, which operates a huge poplar tree farm in Boardman.

As for biomass, Imbler says the plan is to extract the sugars from the poplar pulp to make ethanol and to use the dry wood to make biomass fuel to replace coal. He says the resulting coal-like product performs well but has yet to be tested by third-party labs. “That’s one reason we’re building the demo plant,” he says. “We want to run stuff and follow the molecules in circles, and make products and byproducts and do test work on all of it.”

Coal has long been an area of interest for Imbler, an energy industry veteran who formerly served as president of the sprawling Koch Petroleum. He and several other ZeaChem executives formerly worked at Evergreen Energy, a public company focused on “clean coal.”

PGE spokesman Steve Corson says PGE is aware of ZeaChem’s research into biomass but has no deal in place with the company. “We are actively researching the potential for biomass to refuel the Boardman plant once we cease the use of coal in 2020,” he says.



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