cellulosic image.bmpRange Fuels, the Broomfield Colo., company racing to build the first commercial plant for producing a more efficient form of ethanol, got closer to that goal after being awarded a $76 million grant by the U.S. Department of Energy.

This is significant because cellulosic ethanol, made from crop waste, switchgrass, woodchips, and other bio refuse, is much more efficient and cleaner than regular corn ethanol, and could help the nation in its quest for alternative energy sources (click on image above for more info about cellulosic ethanol).

The grant was part of $385 million awarded by the DOE for biorefinery projects over the next four years. Details of the DOE’s grants are here, and it includes six companies, including Range, and a description of what they do.

Range’s chief executive Mitch Mandich told VentureBeat Wednesday morning that he still thinks Range will be first to build a commercial plant to make cellulosic ethanol. That’s because he’s using a “thermal conversion” method, which he says is more efficient than the “enzyme” methods being used by his competitors, such as Iogen and Broin.

Enzymes are tricker and more expensive to make, he said, and those other companies are giving a range of about 2009 or 2010 before they become available. Range hasn’t given a firm date, but plans to beat those timeline comfortably, he said. He was previously backed with $3.3 million from Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures

Range’s plant will be located in Soperton, Georgia, and will use pine tree waste and other material.

Other companies receiving grants were BlueFire Ethanol, Alico and Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass.

Iogen, of Ottawa, is also venture-backed, having received about $67 million from Goldman Sachs, Royal Dutch Shell and the Canadian government. It is building an 18 million gallon per year plant in Shelley, Idaho. The definition of a commercial facility is one that produces 10 million gallons per year.