The cost-effective conversion of cellulose to ethanol has certainly presented challenges. “There is a reason that trees can live hundreds of years — cellulose is strong,” says Ronald Miller, managing director for Prisma Advisors LLC, Pekin, Ill., which specializes in working with startup companies in the alternative energy and biotechnology sectors. Technologies to break down cellulose (such as acid hydrolysis and gasification) economically have been more difficult than initially thought, especially when you go to scale it up, Miller says.

The companies that will be producing cellulosic ethanol next year have already logged years of development. Abengoa’s Standlee provides a glimpse into the process and timeline: “We began testing our proprietary enzymatic hydrolysis technology at laboratory scale in 2003, and first produced cellulosic ethanol at a pilot-plant scale in York, Neb.

“In 2007, we built a demonstration plant in Salamanca, Spain, which started production in 2009,” he continues. “We started construction on our commercial-scale facility in Hugoton in 2011, and are now on the cusp of completing construction. We expect to start operations this December or in January.

“Through this deliberate and careful ramp-up, we have run this process for many thousands of hours and are confident that our technology will be scalable to commercial production rates without major issues,” Standlee says.