Jay Mitchell

Date of Award


Level of Access

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Chemical Engineering


Joseph M. Genco

Second Committee Member

Adriaan R.P. van Heiningen

Third Committee Member

John Hwalek


Diminishing crude oil and natural gas supplies, along with concern about greenhouse gas are major driving forces in the search for efficient renewable energy sources. The conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to energy and useful chemicals is a component of the solution. Ethanol is most commonly produced by enzymatic hydrolysis of complex carbohydrates to simple sugars followed by fermentation using yeast.

C6Hl0O5 + H2O −Enxymes→ C6H12O6 −Yeast→ 2CH3CH2OH + 2C02

In the U.S. corn is the primary starting raw material for commercial ethanol production. However, there is insufficient corn available to meet the future demand for ethanol as a gasoline additive. Consequently a variety of processes are being developed for producing ethanol from biomass; among which is the NREL process for the production of ethanol from white hardwood.

The objective of the thesis reported here was to perform a technical economic analysis of the hardwood to ethanol process. In this analysis a Greenfield plant was compared to co-locating the ethanol plant adjacent to a Kraft pulp mill. The advantage of the latter case is that facilities can be shared jointly for ethanol production and for the production of pulp. Preliminary process designs were performed for three cases; a base case size of 2205 dry tons/day of hardwood (52 million gallons of ethanol per year) as well as the two cases of half and double this size. The thermal efficiency of the NREL process was estimated to be approximately 36%; that is about 36% of the thermal energy in the wood is retained in the product ethanol and by-product electrical energy. The discounted cash flow rate of return on investment and the net present value methods of evaluating process alternatives were used to evaluate the economic feasibility of the NREL process. The minimum acceptable discounted cash flow rate of return after taxes was assumed to be 10%. In all of the process alternatives investigated, the dominant cost factors are the capital recovery charges and the cost of wood. The Greenfield NREL process is not economically viable with the cost of producing ethanol varying from $2.58 to $2.08/gallon for the half capacity and double capacity cases respectively. The co-location cases appear more promising due to reductions in capital costs. The most profitable co-location case resulted in a discounted cash flow rate of return improving from 8.5% for the half capacity case to 20.3% for the double capacity case. Due to economy of scale, the investments become more and more profitable as the size of the plant increases. This concept is limited by the amount of wood that can be delivered to the plant on a sustainable basis as well as the demand for ethanol within a reasonable distance of the plant.