Mascoma hopes to make ethanol a better way Demonstration facility is among flurry of activity at Griffiss

Experimental methods for converting wood chips and other biomass into ethanol will be tested at Griffiss Business and Technology Park.

Mascoma Corp., based in Cambridge, Mass., has begun building facilities that will demonstrate the commercial potential of cellulosic ethanol. Production of the gasoline alternative in the shell building on Ellsworth Road is expected by year’s end.

The arrival of Mascoma is another sign of the continued growth of the business park at the former Griffiss Air Force Base. Since the base was shuttered following the 1993 round of base closings and consolidations, more than $270 million in public and private money has been invested at Griffiss in infrastructure and capital projects, and today more than 5,000 people work in the park.

Also on the horizon at the business park this year are the opening a hotel, ramping up of the county airport following its move to Griffiss last year, and continued job growth at Empire Aero Center and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.

Ethanol from vegetable matter

While the use of corn as a fuel for the development of ethanol has been gaining ground among alternative-energy companies, Mascoma aims to replicate the process using other biomass sources such as grass, wood and forestry wastes, including chips and paper sludge from mills.

Mascoma has nabbed millions in venture capital funding and begun work on set up a pilot plant at Griffiss. When up and running by the end of the year, its production capacity will be about 500,000 gallons a year. Preliminary renovations to the vacant 54,000-square-foot building began last fall as the company started lining up the necessary approvals from the city for the project.

The company also has announced projects in Tennessee and Michigan. Meanwhile, the company has options on parcels elsewhere at Griffiss that could be used for a large-scale commercial operation.

The Griffiss facility is the result of a $14.8 million award from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets and the state Energy Research and Development Authority to build and operate a biomass-to-ethanol demonstration plant.

The basic process takes three stages: First, plant matter has to be broken up into, among other substances, cellulose and lignin. The cellulose is then converted to sugars, and the sugars are then converted to alcohol.

Mascoma’s ultimate strategy is to exploit microorganisms that can perform both the cellulose-to-sugar and sugar-to-alcohol conversions. Combining the two stages will cut costs and speed up production.

Mascoma, founded in 2005, grew out of research at Dartmouth College.

Ethanol is a liquid fuel that is seen as a replacement to gasoline. Presently, ethanol in the United States is made almost exclusively from corn, a product Mascoma says is expensive, limited in supply and has other valued uses, like food for humans and livestock.

Additionally, it takes a considerable amount of water and energy to grow the corn, distill the corn mash into sugar and then turn that sugar into ethanol.

Benefits of ethanol include a decreased dependence on foreign oil and a cleaner burning fuel.

Ethanol burns cleaner in the engine and has higher octane, giving a car more horsepower. But high mixes like E85 get fewer miles per gallon than regular gasoline because ethanol has about 30 percent less energy.

City, county, state and federal officials, and others, were on hand in December when the Massachusetts company formally introduced its Griffiss project.

“We’re on the verge of something special,” said CEO Bruce Jamerson as he addressed the group gathered inside the Ellsworth Road building. “Cellulosic ethanol will become a commercial reality and the work done at this new facility will dramatically expedite the process.”

The company expects the Griffiss plant will employ about 10 skilled workers. At full production, the plant will consume about 20 tons of biomass a day. This will require receiving one or two trucks a day to deliver feedstock. A tanker truck filled with ethanol will be sent out every two weeks.

In addition, there will be residue left from the process that the company plans to have trucked out daily. The company says the potential exists for selling this material as fuel for energy production plants.

Besides the vacant shell building and availability of biomass, the presence of steam and rail service were among the factors that helped attract the company to Griffiss.

Steam is needed in the biomass conversion process, and the Griffiss steam plant is only a short distance away from the Mascoma site.

The railroad tracks at Griffiss will be a factor if Mascoma decides to build a commercial ethanol production facility. The line would be used to bring feedstock to the plant and to export ethanol from the site.

Hotel rising

The exterior of the first hotel in Griffiss business park is nearing completion and the facility will open later this year.

The $7 million Wingate by Wyndham will serve business and leisure travelers. It is located at Griffiss Parkway and Dart Circle, near Rome Free Academy.

A total of 76 rooms and jacuzzi suites on four floors will be available to guests with complimentary wireless Internet access and a breakfast buffet. Other features will be a meeting room, a board room and business center equipped with a computer, fax machine and photocopy machine. Additional amenities will include an indoor swimming pool, jacuzzi, and fitness center.

A full-service restaurant within the hotel site is also in the future plans.

Rome Griffiss Development Co., L.P., formed a partnership with the Wingate to invest in the construction. The Lodging Development Co., Inc. will manage the facility once it is constructed.

“We are here for the long haul and we are happy to be a part of the Rome community,” said Tom Bell, managing partner of the Wingate Hotel, at the groundbreaking event in July.

Wyndham Hotel Group encompasses almost 6,500 franchised hotels and almost 542,000 hotel rooms worldwide. All hotels either are independently owned franchises or managed by a Wyndham Hotel Group subsidiary

DFAS keeps growing

Employment at the Rome Defense Finance and Accounting Service may reach about 1,050 this year, up slightly from the 1,000 projected several years ago.

About 500 new jobs have already been added locally as DFAS consolidates nationally with the Griffiss facility one the five sites to remain operation.

The extra positions would stem from the Griffiss park site assuming an additional workload in processing Army travel reimbursements for military and civilian employees, explained Rome Director Roy Higgins, who described the assignment as “a good thing” for the local facility and its quality of work.

DFAS’ current employment is more than 800, having risen from nearly 700 since last February and from about 340 in early 2006 prior to the start of the job boom.

The growth stems from the August 2005 decision by the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission for Rome to be one of five remaining DFAS sites under a major nationwide consolidation. The ruling called for Rome DFAS employment to rise to no less than 1,000.

Rome DFAS offers specialized accounting functions in support of various Army segments, and has been designated as a “Center of Excellence” for Army field operations.

More information can be found at: Rome Sentinel

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