Cellulosic ethanol comes of age in 2014

Source: By Gene Lucht Iowa Farmer Today • Posted: Friday, November 8, 2013

Neveda cellulosic ethanol plant

NEVADA — It’s looking like 2014 could be a big year for the fledgling cellulosic ethanol industry.

Three full-fledged cellulosic ethanol-production facilities are slated to open, and at a fourth site a corn ethanol plant is adding a bolt-on bit of cellulosic technology.

Construction crews are busy today at the site of the new DuPont cellulosic ethanol plant here. A few hours away in Emmetsburg, crews are also at work putting up another cellulosic ethanol production facility at the POET plant.

In the small community of Galva, the planners are taking a different approach to cellulosic ethanol as they make changes at the corn ethanol plant.

In Hugoton, Kan., construction is under way at an Abengoa bioenergy plant.

The Abengoa project is expected to use wheat straw as a primary feedstock while the Galva project, at Quad County Corn Processors, will use new technology developed at that location to use corn kernel fiber in the existing ethanol process.

But, the other two projects will use corn stover as the primary feedstock.

“Corn stover is a whole new commodity. Historically, we don’t use it,” says Jeff Taylor, a farmer from Gilbert and chairman of Lincolnway Energy in Nevada, which is next door to the new DuPont facility.

Taylor and other farmers living near the Nevada facility have been working with DuPont on how to best gather, transport and store the cornstalks to be used in the new cellulosic production process.

Producers in Northwest Iowa have been undergoing a similar process with POET.

Iowa State University researchers have been working with the industry to help determine how to best harvest and use corn stalks and other feedstocks to make cellulosic ethanol.

They have been looking at items ranging from how much stover should be removed (while still leaving enough to protect the soil from erosion) to how to best package and move the stalks.

In the case of the Emmetsburg and the Nevada facilities, the companies say they will try to work primarily with farmers within about 35 miles of their plants because of all the issues with transportation and storage of the bulky product.

That makes cellulosic ethanol from corn stover fundamentally different than the corn-ethanol process because corn is easier to transport and store.

“We’re bringing in about 100,000 tons (of corn stover) this harvest,” says Steve Hartig, general manager of licensing for POET DSM ethanol biofuels.

This is the fifth year POET has collected stover.

The Emmetsburg and Nevada plants will be similar in size and both will use corn stover, but they are not identical. Indeed, their approaches are different.

In the case of POET, the idea is to build a facility that would essentially be an add-on to existing corn-ethanol plants throughout the Midwest.

There are 26 POET plants and many more owned or operated by other entities could potentially use the technology and design to make ethanol out of biomass.

The process produces ethanol, as well as water that can be used in the plant, and lignin which can be run through an anaerobic digestion process to provide power for the biomass plant and for the corn-ethanol facility.

In essence, it becomes a 25-million-gallon ethanol plant that is also a power plant for part of the facility.

In Emmetsburg, the corn plant produces about 55 million gal. of ethanol, and the biomass plant will supplement it with about 25 million gal.

Hartig says a corn plant could conceivably produce 50 million or 100 million gal., but an add-on biomass facility might be limited to 35 million or 40 million gal. due to storage and transportation issues.

The scope is similar, but the business plan is a bit different in Nevada

In Nevada, the cellulosic plant is being built by DuPont, rather than by Lincolnway Energy, the corn-ethanol plant located next door.

There are synergies between the two facilities, and DuPont officials say the economics of building the biomass plant are better when paired with a corn ethanol facility or some other related type of industry.

DuPont, which also owns DuPont Pioneer, is moving more into the bio-economy field, says V. John Pieper, stover feedstock workstream leader for DuPont.

“We are going to a be a bio-solution company,” Pieper says.

As such, he says, DuPont wants the industry to grow. It isn’t as interested in building its own biomass-production facilities as it is in licensing that technology.

The Nevada facility really signals its step into the commercial biomass production industry as a technology company.

As such, the facility here will use corn stover to produce about 30 million gal. of ethanol per year, and it will work closely with Lincolnway Energy.

By adding biomass production to other ethanol production and also by using the process to provide other co-products, the facility could allow lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The production of cellulosic ethanol also could help the industry meet the levels required by the federal Renewable Fuels Standard.

Pieper and Hartig say biomass production of ethanol can be done using anything from wood pulp to switchgrass.

Corn stover is the most economically feasible path in this part of the country because farmers already produce it, and the barriers of transportation and farmer participation are much lower than they would be for a process that would involve introduction of new crops into an economic model.

“In Central Iowa, corn is king,” Pieper notes.

Both facilities, as well as the ones in Galva and Hugoton, Kan., are slated to open next year.

That’s when the biomass revolution will really start to become a reality in this part of the world.