Editor’s Sketchbook: Beta Renewables cellulosic ethanol project, Crescentino, Italy

September 25, 2014 |

The first thing you notice about the Beta Renewables cellulosic ethanol plant in Crescentino is the size and scope. After the long “five years away” era of cellulosic biofuels, where systems fit on benches, or in small shacks that held pilots, this 20 million gallon cellulosic biofuels project, up close and in person, is like seeing the Saturn V rocket for the first time. The Titan that powered Project Gemini, the Redstones and Atlases that powered Project Mercury, look like midget rockets launched out of backyards by comparison.

Crescentino is a project many thought would never get built. Several years of industry skepticism preceded a decision by Beta’s parent Chemtex (itself a subsidiary of M&G, one of the world’s largest producers of PET for synthetic fibers and plastic bottling) to build the project off its own balance sheet.

It has a set of economics not quite like anyone else’s. Famously low on capex — with rumors that the numbers run as low as $5 per installed gallon. Not a case of cutting corners — a case of looking for process efficiencies — and also, in eliminating harsh chemical pre-treatment. It’s also known for supplying steam via biogas, using little lignin for power and instead shipping off green electrons to the grid. And they are hot on the hunt for more value on lignin. In the labs in Tortona, Italy — they have a MOGLI project aimed at finding breakthroughs of that type.


[Above] One of the first things that strikes you about cellulosic biofuels at full-scale is…well, the scale. Even from a distance, the plant is impressive in scope and detail. Pictured here, a distillation column in the foreground and the boiler technology in the background.


[Above] The boiler really knocks you for a loop. It feels like a skyscraper erected in the Italian countryside.


[Above] Inside, the action begins with the biomass collection and initial processing — here, twin lines convey the biomass (could be stover, bagasse, wheat straw, or energy crops) towards the steam explosion process and pre-treatment.


[Above] Three giant hydrolysis and fermentation units, roughly the same size, which is to say, a couple of stories high, dominate the action as the sugars are separated and fermented into “beer” which will later be dewatered, purified and sold.


[Above] External storage tanks form a long alley at Crescentino.

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