A $1.8 million federal grant has been awarded to the City of Clinton to help pay for water and sewer hookups to a planned $200 million investment: a 20-million-gallon-a-year cellulosic biofuel refinery in the Sampson County community.

The project, first made public in 2012, is expected to start in October and be operating at full capacity around the end of 2016.

The newest grant was from the United States Economic Development Administration. The project also involves the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Italian owned engineering and technology company Biochemtex, and Novozymes, which has developed the enzymes used in the refining process at its $500 million North American headquarters in Franklinton.

The North Carolina-based Murphy-Brown and BB&T have also reportedly partnered in the project.

The North Carolina ethanol plant will use the same PROESA technology being used in the world’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, which is already in full-scale operation in Crescentino, Italy. The process, developed by Beta Renewables, a subsidiary of Biochemtex, is also being used in a 22-million-gallon-a-year plant built by Gran Bio in Brazil. That facility is expected to start production in the next few months.

The new Clinton biorefinery is expected to create 65 full-time jobs paying an average annual salary of over $48,000, a significant increase from the Sampson County average of $30,822. It will also present opportunities for some 250 farmers and other suppliers in the economically stressed Southeastern and Eastern regions of the state.

The biofuel refinery is expected to use a range of different energy grasses, including switchgrass, biomass sorghum, miscanthus and Arundo donax, also known as giant reed, as well as agricultural residues and wood chips. Specialists at North Carolina State University have been working on developing plants to maximize growth on marginal farmland in the region.

The intent is not only to create new opportunities for farmers without using otherwise valuable land needed for growing food crops, but also to generate lower-carbon fuels and improve the environment.

The refinery is another facet of North Carolina’s global agricultural biotechnology leadership, as the nation’s first full-scale ethanol facility relying on non-food cellulosic energy crops. The raw materials will be grown on some 30,000 acres of marginal land by farmers in close proximity to the refinery, adding to the project’s efficiency.

Researchers have been developing increasingly efficient versions of miscanthus and other crops, including sterile versions, and hardy versions that are pest resistant and capable of surviving marginal soil and water conditions.

The USDA awarded the proposed project area $3.9 million two years ago, under the federal Biomass Crop Assistance Program, to help North Carolina farmers establish at least 4,000 acres of switchgrass and miscanthus across 11 counties to help supply the new facility.

USDA officials estimate the growers will net $4.5 million a year in increased revenue.

Note: Jim Shamp is Director of Media Relations for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

(C) NC Biotechnology Center