DuPont breaks ground on $200 million cellulosic ethanol refinery

Source: Dan Piller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, December 3, 2012

Bales of corn cellulose and a tractor mark the site where DuPont's planned cellulosic ethanol facility will be constructed adjacent to Lincolnway Energy's ethanol plant west of Nevada. It will be the nation's largest cellulosic ethanol plant when it opens by mid-2014.

Bales of corn cellulose and a tractor mark the site where DuPont’s planned cellulosic ethanol facility will be constructed adjacent to Lincolnway Energy’s ethanol plant west of Nevada. It will be the nation’s largest cellulosic ethanol plant when it opens by mid-2014. / Christopher Gannon/Register Photo

NEVADA, IA. — DuPont would have proceeded with the groundbreaking for its new cellulosic ethanol plant even if the federal government had agreed to waive the rule that requires ethanol demand, said James Collins, president of DuPont Industrial Biosciences.

But Collins warned that “the fight isn’t over. Big Oil is still the problem. And as long as there is uncertainty over the mandate, the industry will be reluctant to invest in biofuels.”

The groundbreaking — it was actually a flag-raising since the ground was broken and smoothed earlier to beat the frost — starts construction for DuPont’s $200 million, 30 million-gallon-capacity refinery. It will be the nation’s largest cellulosic ethanol plant when it opens by mid-2014.

The new refinery will use cornstalks and leaves left at harvest as feedstock, finally showing a sign that long-awaited cellulosic ethanol can be a reality.

Cellulosic ethanol is considered crucial to Iowa if the state is to retain its position as the nation’s largest producer of ethanol. The Renewable Fuel Standard, which is the basis for demand for ethanol, effectively limits corn-fed ethanol production at 18 billion gallons by 2020. The rest has to come from other sources, such as wood biomass or cellulose such as crop residue or grasses.

Among ethanol’s many political problems has been the delay in producing cellulosic, or leafy biomass. The delays are due largely to complexities in a technology far different from corn ethanol production, which is not far removed from old moonshine stills.

Would-be cellulosic ethanol producers also must figure out the logistics of gathering and delivering the massive amount of leafy materials, a far cry from the simple delivery of corn to an ethanol plant that is identical to a delivery to a grain elevator.

This year is likely to be the third in a row when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will report that the goals of the 2007 renewable fuels act won’t be met. Under the law, refiners are expected to use 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol, but only a tiny fraction of that has been produced.

“When a company like DuPont, which has been in business for 200 years, breaks ground, that means something,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

The groundbreaking, which drew Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and various local dignitaries to DuPont’s site just west of the Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant, was a respite from a tough week in the increasingly pitched battle between biofuels and the oil industry.

On Wednesday the American Petroleum Institute sued the Environmental Protection Agency, trying to block the agency’s expansion of the mandate for biodiesel from 1 billion gallons this year to 1.28 billion gallons.

A day later the AAA motor club repeated a charge made frequently by oil interests, that the 15 percent ethanol blend now being introduced would damage car engines.

“Every time you dig through a charge against ethanol, the shovel comes up with oil on it,” Shaw said.

Even Branstad, while heaping praise on DuPont and its Iowa seed-producing subsidiary, Johnston-based DuPont Pioneer, warned the crowd that “ethanol remains under attack.”

In a video greeting, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said, “Big Oil and Big Food are relentless in their attacks on the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

In November, the EPA declined to relax its requirement on the use of corn ethanol in gasoline, despite several states’ concerns of falling corn production and higher prices after the drought.

The DuPont plant will be one of two cellulosic plants, in addition to Iowa’s 41 corn-fed refineries.

The other cellulosic plant, a joint venture of Poet and Dutch-based DSM Advanced Biofuels, is under construction adjacent to Poet’s corn-fed ethanol plant at Emmetsburg.

Poet spokesman Matt Merritt said the South Dakota-based ethanol producer plans to finish its corn residue-fed plant by the end of next year.

The challenge for DuPont, Poet/­DSM and other cellulosic ventures will be the logistics of raking, baling and delivering tons of biomass materials.

The DuPont plant will use 375,000 tons of corn residue, drawn mostly from farms within a 30-mile radius of Nevada.

Various methods have been used in trial gatherings of residue in tests in Iowa. Collins said DuPont has tested a prototype “single pass” combine that harvests corn and gathers residue at the same time.

“I think that will ultimately be the model use,” Collins said. “Implement companies are looking at the technology. Farmers want as few passes over their fields as possible.”