One of these companies is not like the others

Published 12:02 am Sunday, June 3, 2012

Lots of local people rolled their eyes earlier this year when fuel technology company KiOR announced plans to bring their flagship production facility to Adams County.

KiOR plans to turn something our region has tons of — trees — into oil and eventually refined into gasoline.

If it seems like a bit of magic or other alchemy to you, you’re not alone.

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It’s not that residents are overly skeptical. It’s just that in many ways they feel like they’ve heard the story of a magical way to create energy in a different way before.

Several years ago, Rentech came to town and suggested they were going to cook coal until it turned into a special diesel-like fuel. The technology was proven — German scientists perfected the technology during World War II.

The only problem was the math behind the whole thing. In short, the science was sound, the business plan wasn’t. Rentech needed tons of money up front to get the plant built. Then, if and when it could build the plant, apparently the company needed high oil prices, government subsidies or both to make it viable long-term.

Also a few years ago, John Rivera, the self-professed biofuels wizard, claimed that he’d just stumbled upon a process to create cellulosic ethanol. He was later proven to be a fraud that ramped up his company’s stock price to bilk money from shareholders.

So with those two predecessors, it’s no doubt that skepticism was the order of the day when someone new started suggesting that logs can be turned into oil in a few seconds.

It just seems a little crazy at first, at least until the folks at KiOR start explaining it and you start thinking back to the science class.

The science seems simple.

All living things contain lots of carbon molecules.

Today, when we crank up our Fords or our four-wheelers, we’re burning carbon molecules that were old plants or animals from millions of years ago — hence the name fossil fuels.

Those fuels were created by great heat and pressure modifying the carbon chain.

KiOR says it can do the same thing chemically, in its factory, essentially turning sawdust into crude oil, which can be refined into gasoline and diesel.

The biggest difference between KiOR and the other folks who have come through Natchez promising new energy production — they don’t seem like pipe dreamers or like they’re crazy, either.

A couple of the KiOR folks were in Natchez last week meeting with local economic development officials. To listen to them, they seem believable.

The fact that they’re about to crank up a new production facility they just built in Columbus makes them pretty credible in my book.

It will be interesting to see how their work progresses.

Their logic seems sound — don’t use materials that are food-based, such as corn-based ethanol — and set up show near the source of your fuel.

With the closure of plants such as International Paper’s Natchez mill, which was a long-time consumer of wood, our area has plenty of wood to go around.

If their science is sound — and one would think they’ve checked that pretty well before sinking more than $200 million into the Columbus plant — KiOR seems poised to change not only our economy but the country’s economy, too.

Time will tell, but this one seems a much better bet than we’ve had in Southwest Mississippi in a long time.


Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or