Poet accuses engineering company of failure in quest for cellulosic ethanol

Source: By Jonathan Ellis, Argus Leader • Posted: Monday, May 1, 2017

Ethanol producer Poet is suing an international engineering company that was hired to create a system to help convert biomass into ethanol, underscoring the challenges of creating inexpensive cellulosic ethanol.

Poet Design & Construction Inc. hired Andritz Inc. of Georgia in 2010 to design a system at Poet’s pioneering ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Most ethanol produced in the Midwest comes from corn – a fuel source that has been criticized by some as inefficient.

Poet’s Emmetsburg plant uses a next-generation system to make ethanol out of stalks, cornhusks and other biomass materials. The $275 million facility opened in 2014 with the goal of producing ethanol from biomass at a scale that was economically feasible.

“This method of creating cellulosic (as opposed to traditional grain) ethanol presents a win-win for Poet and local farmers – Poet receives the raw material necessary for ethanol production and farmers get paid for biomass that was previously considered a largely unusable waste product of their harvests,” Poet’s complaint says.

Andritz, according to the lawsuit, was hired to create a system that pretreated biomass on an economically scalable level so that it could be converted into low-cost sugars used to produce ethanol.

But once installed at the plant, Poet alleges Andritz was incapable of providing a pre-treatment system for the biomass and of operating at a rate to meet commercial scalability, “thereby preventing the plant from producing cellulosic ethanol at a commercially scalable level,” the lawsuit says.

Poet put the company on notice in 2014 that the system was not living up to expectations. Poet claims that Andritz had many opportunities to get the system operational, including design modifications that led to multiple plant shutdowns.

“But despite being afforded over one-and-half years to remedy its defective engineering and design, Andritz was never able to fix its engineering and design of the system,” the lawsuit says.

Poet spent more than $25 million on the system.

Poet’s complaint alleges professional negligence and breach of contract on the part of Andritz. A spokesman for Andritz did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Poet spokesman Matt Merritt said in a statement that the company doesn’t discuss ongoing litigation.

“We’re still committed to moving forward with cellulosic ethanol production and are excited about the opportunity to deploy this technology across the U.S. and world,” Merritt said.