ZeaChem sees Boardman as key to biofuel future

ZeaChem's Boardman plant is poised to play a key role in Oregon's biofuels future.

ZeaChem's Boardman plant is poised to play a key role in Oregon's biofuels future.

In December a Lakewood, Colo., company will uncork an eastern Oregon demonstration plant that it hopes will produce high-quality biofuels cheaply enough to trade on the world market.

Using proprietary technology based on bacteria found in the stomach of termites, ZeaChem Inc. will convert leftover plant materials from local tree, row-crop and wheat farms into fuel at a cash cost currently estimated at about 96 cents per gallon.

“There’s no doubt about it. To make this work, we have to be able to compete with crude oil,” said Jim Imbler, ZeaChem’s CEO.

It’s a gamble that can pay off big for ZeaChem and the Boardman-area economy, which has been hit with the closure of the nearby U.S. Army’s Umatilla Chemical Depot, which for 70 years had been the region’s largest employer with as many as 1,300 workers.

“These are great-paying jobs that are staying here. Biomass can’t be outsourced to China,” said Imbler.

ZeaChem has heavily hinted — but not explicitly promised — that a commercial plant will be built at Boardman if the demonstration plant succeeds. The demonstration plant will initially employ 25 core workers and 10 more funded by the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant to develop commercial drop-in fuels. The grant also creates 75 construction jobs. The plant is expected to produce 250,000 gallons in its first year.

“We expect the commercial plant will create 188 direct construction jobs and 65 full-time operations jobs. It will also create an additional 242 indirect jobs, including 82 in construction and 160 in full-time operations,” said James Cortese, ZeaChem information officer.

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