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Beyond the corn: The new frontier in ethanol is nonfood biofuel

Beyond the corn: The new frontier in ethanol is nonfood biofuel thumbnail

The first large ethanol plants to produce biofuel from nonfood sources like corn cobs are starting operations in the Midwest as the industry worries that they might also be the last – at least in the United States.

After a decade of research and development, ethanol maker Poet Inc. and its Dutch partner Royal DSM recently produced the first cellulosic ethanol at a $275 million plant next to a cornfield in this northern Iowa town.

Two other companies are completing new cellulosic ethanol plants in Iowa and Kansas. By next year, they expect to be producing millions of gallons of the advanced biofuel.

“It was a big moment when we produced ethanol,” said the Emmetsburg plant’s general manager, Daron Wilson, who kept a vial from the first batch in August as a memento. “It was jubilation.”

Yet the goal of producing ethanol from nonfood sources faces a murky future. Wavering U.S. policy on renewable fuels and the North American oil boom cast a shadow over the commercial triumph.

The next big cellulosic ethanol plants are planned or being built in Brazil, not the United States. Although the U.S. government has spent more than $1 billion to develop cellulosic technology, industry executives recently wrote to President Barack Obama that other countries, including China, could “reap the economic and environmental rewards of technologies pioneered in America.”

Most ethanol is fermented from corn kernels. The fuel made at the new Emmetsburg plant is derived from inedible parts of the corn plant. Straw and grasses also can be used because, like corn residue, they contain sugars that cellulosic technology can extract from the fibers.

Outside the Emmetsburg plant are 158,000 bales of corn cobs, husks and stalks collected from farmers’ fields. The residue is ground up, subjected to acid, water, heat and enzymes to extract hidden sugars. Then they’re fermented and distilled. The 200-proof alcohol is the same as that made from corn.

“Cellulosic is kind of like corn ethanol was in the ‘80s,” said Jeff Lautt, chief executive of Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Poet, the nation’s second-largest ethanol maker operating 27 traditional production plants. “It has a lot of promise, it needs some support to allow the innovation and continuous improvement to happen, but long-term it can compete on its own just like corn ethanol.”

Lautt and other industry officials said cellulosic ethanol can be produced today for $3 per gallon, but costs are sure to drop, making it competitive with corn ethanol, whose U.S. average rack price recently dropped below $2 per gallon.

Besides federal R&D grants, Congress has, at times, offered a $1 per gallon tax credit to promote advanced biofuels like cellulosic ethanol. The credit expired last year. In 2007, Congress enacted the renewable fuel standard that imposed a complex system of mandates to blend more ethanol into the nation’s motor fuel. The oil industry has resisted it as onerous, costly and unworkable.

Ethanol makers say that without a blending mandate, it will be difficult if not impossible to raise investment capital for more U.S. cellulosic ethanol plants. The Obama administration, which has signaled it might change the mandate, is expected soon to announce its policy.

The new Midwestern cellulosic ethanol plants represent big investments by deep-pocketed companies that weathered longer-than-expected paths to commercial scale.

Abengoa Bioenergy, the U.S.-based biofuels arm of a Spanish energy company, says it has just completed and is starting up its $300 million cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kan. Like the Poet-DSM plant in Emmetsburg, its output is expected to be 25 million gallons per year.

DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol, part of the Wilmington, Del.-based industrial giant, expects to complete in a few months its 30 million-gallon-per-year plant in Nevada, Iowa, at a cost of more than $200 million. Last week, DuPont said it will sell more than 500,000 gallons of the output annually to Procter & Gamble for its cold-water Tide laundry detergent. Tide, which has long used ethanol in its formula, will be the first detergent produced with cellulosic ethanol.

Abengoa is upbeat about its new plant’s success, but is planning its next project in Brazil. That’s already happened with Iogen Corp., an Ottawa-based company with similar cellulosic technology. Iogen is completing a plant in Brazil with ethanol maker Raizen Energia Participacoes. Both plants will make ethanol from bagasse, a fibrous material in sugar cane.

“America remains an exciting and important opportunity,” Iogen CEO Brian Foody said in an interview. “It is important that U.S. policy find room for growth of ethanol use beyond the E10 level.”

One problem facing the ethanol industry is that traditional ethanol plants have more than enough capacity to supply 10 percent of the U.S. fuel supply. Almost all gasoline is sold at that blend, E10.

Ethanol makers never planned on cutting back corn ethanol output to make way for the new cellulosic version. At Emmetsburg, the Poet-DSM cellulosic plant called “Project Liberty,” stands next to a 9-year-old corn-ethanol plant.

That leaves one choice: higher blends like E15.

“The truth is that there is only so much ethanol being bought in this country,” said Paul Niznik, research manager and biofuels expert at Hart Energy Research & Consulting in Houston. “If you are making cellulosic ethanol, you are not competing against petroleum products, you are competing with other ethanol plants.”

Once, ethanol marched in the vanguard to reduce U.S. oil imports. Now, the domestic shale oil boom also can claim the energy-independence banner. Oil imports are down to 40 percent of U.S. consumption, the lowest since 1996.

“In 2007 we were talking about peak oil – we don’t talk about that anymore,” said Jason Hill, assistant professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota. “The landscape has changed.”

What’s next?

The game plan for cellulosic pioneers like Poet-DSM is to license their technology to other ethanol companies and earn fees on the intellectual property.

That might be difficult if investment dollars dry up for large, new ethanol plants. Yet there is another, new, low-cost cellulosic option that may appeal to ethanol plants looking to expand.

Quad County Corn Processors, a locally owned ethanol plant in Galva, Iowa, developed technology that extracts trapped sugars from fibrous parts of the corn kernel and ferments them in an ethanol plant’s existing equipment. ICM Inc., the Colwich, Kan., company that designed most of the U.S. ethanol plants, offers a competing corn-fiber cellulosic technology.

In September, the Galva cooperative officially flipped the switch on its system – $9 million worth of bolt-on equipment to boost the plant’s ethanol output by 6 percent, and, eventually, 11 percent, chief executive Delayne Johnson said in an interview.

“Our technology doesn’t need any government subsidies to make it profitable,” said Johnson, who believes the investment will pay off in three years.

Johnson said the technology also increases the ethanol plant’s output of corn oil, and results in a higher ratio of protein in the animal-feed byproduct, making it more valuable. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says corn-fiber ethanol qualifies as an advanced biofuel, which gives it a higher value under the agency’s blending requirements.

Some researchers have questioned whether cellulosic ethanol from cornfield residue truly helps reduce greenhouse gases linked to climate change. Hill said long-term studies are needed to resolve those scientific issues. Ethanol makers say cellulosic technology’s low-carbon benefits are proved – and could offer business opportunities.

The industry is closely watching states like California that have or are considering low-carbon fuel standards. They could pave the way for cellulosic ethanol expansion beyond the Corn Belt, with production plants fed not by crop residue, but organic waste from garbage. Abengoa is piloting such a plant in Spain.

“We are actively promoting a full-scale project using municipal waste as a feedstock, which will allow us go outside the middle of the United States to the coasts where there are heavily populated areas that produce a lot of trash and use a lot fuel,” said Christopher G. Standlee, Abengoa’s executive vice president for global affairs.

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11 Comments on "Beyond the corn: The new frontier in ethanol is nonfood biofuel"

  1. Kenz300 on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 5:11 pm 

    Alternative energy sources continue to grow and spread around the world.

    ———————

    DuPont’s $500 Million Biofuel Bet Expected to Pay Off

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2014/10/duponts-500-million-biofuel-bet-expected-to-pay-off

    ———————

    New Biofuels Facility Converts Plant Waste To Ethanol, Is 90 Percent Cleaner Than Gasoline

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/17/biofuels-plant-waste-ethanol_n_6001670.html

    ———————

    Waste to Energy – Waste Management World

    http://www.waste-management-world.com/waste-to-energy.html

  2. MSN Fanboy on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 6:54 pm 

    Yes Kenz, however havent you heard?

    Ebola will tackle the elephant in the room.

    Just kill everyone… hmm problem solved.

    Good God i am Smart

  3. Makati1 on Thu, 23rd Oct 2014 9:22 pm 

    IF you take all of the plant waste out of the soil to make fuel, you are soon left with dead sand. Few are told what a fantastic biological complex living soil really is. Billions of organisms in every cubic yard of dirt. Without them, you are, eventually, dead.

    We are fast approaching that level of ‘dirt’ in most of the ‘developed’ world. Try not using ANY fertilizer when you plant your next crop. Then the next, and so on. Each one will get smaller and less healthy. All the trace minerals will be gone. All of the moisture holding capacity of the soil will be gone. Before long, you have a field of sand.

  4. Preston Sturges on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 12:56 am 

    I think the real payoff would be in not using corn waste but in growing perennial grasses in land that is not otherwise good for farming such as polluted “brown fields” and old strip mines. Fertilize with human sewage which has lots of drugs and chemicals and heavy metals that we don’t need in the food.

  5. Davy on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 7:19 am 

    The key to cellulosic ethanol is keeping the whole process local. You can’t introduce much transportation on either side of the equation. Once you do the ER’s drop quickly to an already marginal source of energy. I want to make another point so often discounted with cellulosic feedstock. One must remember with perennial grasses when one takes the hay of the land you are in effect mining nutrients from the land. P&K&N will have to be reapplied. The Soil may need lime to combat acidification. Organic matter is lost. There are no free lunches. Eventually we are going to have to get back to what was traditionally done with animals and fields in rotational cycles to maintain soil productivity naturally along with production. The excesses of the harvests producing products that can store that energy. One example would be whiskey. Animals in the cycle also reintroduce animal power to the equation. This may ring to your ears like nostalgia but folks that is undeniably where we are heading so it is critical to revisit that equation. In the meantime let us not get too carried away with ethanol. I am going to give the same drum roll I feel we require with AltEs in the descent and that is keep it simple, low tech, low cost, and with robust resilience. In the case of ethanol keep it local which equated to small scale. At the moment ethanol is nothing more than an energy transfer mechanism. It has benefited Brazil and the US with the means to convert large quantities of expensive grain into energy. It is not an energy source just a pass through. I am not naïve to think my prescription for AltE has a future in our complex global system but it will have a place in the descent at the bottom up.

  6. buddavis on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 8:08 am 

    Just my opinion, but it is criminal that we burn food for energy. Mandates and tax incentives need to be taken away.

  7. Dave Thompson on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 8:11 am 

    Bio fuel has an EROEI of 1.1 to 1. BAU needs at least 7 to 1 to function. More hopium for the masses in this one.

  8. MonteQuest on Fri, 24th Oct 2014 5:40 pm 

    Pfft! Robbing peter to pay paul has never been sustainable.

  9. Gilles Fecteau on Sat, 25th Oct 2014 6:11 am 

    This focus on ethanol may be short sited. Advancement in green diesel, gasoline and jet fuel that cannot be distinguished from the petroleum equivalent could replace ethanol.

    Either way, the many comments on the need to maintain soil quality for continued production are valid.

  10. Kenz300 on Sun, 26th Oct 2014 12:09 pm 

    Quote — “We are actively promoting a full-scale project using municipal waste as a feedstock, which will allow us go outside the middle of the United States to the coasts where there are heavily populated areas that produce a lot of trash and use a lot fuel,” said Christopher G. Standlee, Abengoa’s executive vice president for global affairs.”

    Waste to energy makes a lot of sense.

    The world generates a lot of waste every day. Every landfill around the world can be converted to produce energy, biofuels and recycled raw materials for new products.

    That is much better than burying the waste and polluting the soil and ground water.

    The big fossil fuel companies hate this. They continue to look for big centralized solutions to energy production because that is the way they have always done it.

    Smaller decentralized energy production that is local is the future. It provides local jobs and local energy.

    It can be a smaller biofuels plant, a wind farm or solar energy plant. All can provide locally produced energy that is sustainable and less damaging to the environment.

  11. louis wu on Sun, 26th Oct 2014 12:20 pm 

    Kenz300, while the many types of alternative power production methods to fossil fuel use have merit it is only realized when used on a small localized scale.I hope that you don’t think that the globalize BAU system and the American paradigm of suburban sprawl and wasteful consumerist lifestyle can be kept going and even expanded using wind, solar, tidal etc.

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