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By Robert Rapier on Sep 10, 2009 with 1 response

The First Commercial Cellulosic Ethanol Plant in the U.S.

I received a two-week reprieve on the book chapter deadline, as some of the other contributors aren’t finished. So I now have time to pick a few other things back up. I have ended up really reworking the structure of the chapter to discuss the size of the biomass resource base, the combustion technologies, the conversion technologies, and the enabling technologies. Thanks to all who provided feedback and sent e-mails.

As I was writing the section on ethanol from wood via hydrolysis (cellulosic ethanol), I came across some very interesting historical facts. I have known that cellulosic ethanol has been around a long time. I used to say that we have been working on this for decades, but then I found a reference back to 1922 which would put it back almost 100 years. Then I found a reference back to 1898, when the Germans first tried to commercialize it. Now I have traced it all the way back.

I don’t think I have ever had the privilege of using a literature reference from 1819, but here it is. In 1819, Henri Braconnot, a French chemist, first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid (Braconnot 1819). The technique was later used by the Germans to first commercialize cellulosic ethanol from wood in 1898 (EERE 2009).

But believe it or not, commercialization also took place in the U.S. in 1910. The Standard Alcohol Company built a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgetown, South Carolina to process waste wood from a lumber mill (PDA 1910). Standard Alcohol later built a second plant in Fullteron, Louisiana. Each plant produced 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of ethanol per day from wood waste, and both were in production for several years (Sherrard 1945).

To put that in perspective, Iogen claimed in 2004 that they were producing the world’s first cellulose ethanol fuel from their 1,500 gallon per day plant. (While 1,500 gal/day is their announced capacity, if you look at their production statistics they have never sustained more than 500 gallons per day over the course of a year; 2008 production averaged 150 gal/day).

Many companies are in a mad rush to be the “first” to commercialize cellulosic ethanol. The next time you hear someone say that they will be the first, ask them if they plan to invent the telephone next.


Braconnot, H. Annalen der Physik. (1819) 63, 348.

EERE, U.S. DOE Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. (2009). Biomass Program. Retrieved September 9, 2009 from

PDA, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. (1910). 16th Annual Report.

Sherrard, E.C.; Kressman, F.W. “Review of Processes in the United States Prior to World War II.” Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol 37, No. 1, 1945, pp 5-8.

  1. By Cliff Claven on July 12, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Excellent research.  If only those in the federal government and military would do this quality of research before spending our tax money, they would be less fooled by “brochure science” and less of a sucker for the snake oil salesmen.

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