After years of false starts, the state's first ethanol production facility is weeks away from making renewable fuel on a commercial scale.
Clean Burn Fuels, about 20 miles west of Fayetteville in Hoke County, is in the final stages of testing and expects to begin producing 5 million gallons of ethanol a month in July, said company president Jack Carlisle.
The $100 million facility will produce 60 million gallons a year to offset the ethanol now imported by the state, Carlisle said.
"All of it will be used locally," said Carlisle, who lives in Cary.
North Carolina, a major agricultural state, had once aspired to become the Southeastern hub for ethanol production. At one point seven projects had been proposed, but none could raise the capital to proceed with further development.
Clean Burn Fuels has capacity to expand its plant to produce 240 million gallons of ethanol a year, which would make it the biggest ethanol production facility in the country. For perspective, an oil tanker can carry about 80 million gallons of crude.
Clean Burn Fuels was recognized Monday by the N.C. Biofuels Center as the most important contributor to the state's industry in the past year. The biofuels center was created two years ago to make biofuels 10 percent of the state's liquid fuel mix by 2017. The Clean Burn Fuels plant will increase North Carolina's biofuels output from somewhere around negligible to about 10 percent of the state's goal.
The company currently employs 41 people but plans to grow to 50 employees as it ramps up production this summer. The entire operation will create about 100 jobs, Carlisle said, with the inclusion of tanker truck drivers and operators at a nearby carbon dioxide plant to be built nearby.
The carbon dioxide is a byproduct of the corn fermentation process used to make ethanol. The gas can be sold to soft-drink makers for carbonated beverages, as well as for medical and industrial applications. Until the CO2 plant is built next year, the colorless, odorless gas will be cleansed of contaminants and vented.
Ethanol production uses only about a third of the corn going into the production process. Some of the corn comes out as carbon dioxide and the rest can be used for animal feed, a major market in this state.
"A big part of why their model works is because of the state’s hog and poultry industry," said Norman Smit, spokesman for the N.C. Biofuels Center.
Ethanol, a clean-burning fuel additive, is typically used to make two types of fuel in this country. The more common blend, E10, is 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline, and can be used in any car. It's automatically mixed in the gasoline that's dispensed from the pump.
E85 is still relatively rare in this state. The 85-percent ethanol blend can be used only in flex fuel vehicles that can run on gasoline as well as any blend up to 85 percent ethanol. Cruitzer's Biofuels in Durham is the only pump in the Triangle that sells E85, according to the N.C. Biofuels Center in Oxford.
Clean Burn Fuels will make ethanol from corn, about 80 percent of which will be imported from the Midwest and the rest grown locally. In Brazil, however, ethanol is made from sugar cane.
The nation has about 200 ethanol plants, mostly in the Midwest, and the big ones can pump out 100 million gallons of ethanol a year, making the Clean Burn Facility a significant player in the industry.
The use of corn to make fuel has generated controversy because the practice allegedly drove up food prices. The corn used to make ethanol is a high-starch animal feed stock, not the same variety eaten by humans.
At the same time, research efforts in this state and nationwide are underway to make ethanol from inedible cellulose, such as corn stalks, wood chips and other agricultural waste.
Ethanol burns cleaner than petroleum-based fuels and is considered a renewable resource because, unlike fossil fuels, it can be grown every year.
"You'll never go to a beach and find it covered in ethanol," Carlisle said.