Poet forges ahead with cellulosic | TSLN.com

Poet forges ahead with cellulosic

Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter

OMAHA (DTN) – Sioux Falls, SD-based Poet is taking the next step in bringing cellulosic ethanol to commercial production.

The company announced Wednesday at the American Coalition for Ethanol conference in Omaha, Neb., that construction is nearing completion on its pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Scotland, SD. Construction is expected to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2008.

“It is no longer a question of if, but of when we will produce cellulosic ethanol,” Poet CEO and President Jeff Broin said in Omaha Wednesday. “I don’t know if I could have said that even one year ago.”

Broin said the 20,000-gallon, $4 million pilot cellulosic-ethanol plant is being built adjacent to the company’s 9-million-gallon ethanol plant and an existing corn-based ethanol pilot plant already located in Scotland.

The cellulosic-ethanol project will use corn cobs to produce ethanol. Once perfected, the technology will be added to Poet’s Emmetsburg, Iowa, plant, which Broin said will be expanded from its current 50-million-gallon capacity to 125 million gallons, giving farmers a market for both the corn kernel and cob.

“In the past few months our scientists have been able to achieve significant ethanol percentages in fermentation and improve the yield of ethanol from biomass,” he said.

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Poet was one of six companies awarded a total of $385 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy in February 2007, to develop the first generation of cellulosic ethanol plants.

The other companies were Abengoa Bioenergy, BlueFire Ethanol, Iogen Corp, Range Fuels and ALICO Inc. Since that announcement Iogen has decided to build its first commercial wheat straw-to-ethanol plant in British Columbia, while ALICO Inc. announced it has decided not to continue with its project.

Poet’s “Project Liberty” includes a technology that uses a pretreatment step and an enzymatic conversion of the cellulose and hemicellulose in corn cobs into simple and complex sugars. Those sugars then will be converted to ethanol using a bacteria or yeast.

Broin said he is confident Poet will make the process of converting corn cobs to ethanol more efficient and bring down the capital cost to build cellulosic-ethanol plants.

A study published by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University in 2007 concluded that cellulosic ethanol using corn stover will not be feasible in the Corn Belt and would require a break-even corn price of $4.80 per bushel.

But Poet has latched on to the corn cob-to-ethanol idea because the company believes U.S. farmers know how to grow corn, and they would need to make only minor adjustments to existing equipment to harvest the cob and the kernel simultaneously.

Mark Stowers, vice president of research and development at Poet, said in a previous interview with DTN that all the pieces are there for corn stover to become a hit. While critics of corn stover as an ethanol feedstock say harvesting too much stover will lead to increased soil erosion, Stowers told DTN that harvesting cobs takes the environmental concern virtually off the table.

That’s because corn cobs represent just 18 percent of the total above-ground waste after corn harvest. So removing and using corn cobs as a primary ethanol feedstock does little to harm the soil balance. In addition, Poet’s pursuit of the corn cob is based on science. Poet officials said the corn cob has 16 percent more fermentable sugars than does the stalk itself, and farmers have the ability to load their trucks with more biomass from cobs than they would with corn stover.

When it comes to harvesting cobs and kernels simultaneously, the company is considering several options, including commingling of the grain and stover in the combine and modification kits for current combines that allow for separation prior to drying cobs, either in the field or at the farm site. Other options include pulling equipment behind the combine to collect the corn cobs.

Poet has conducted several field trials using different equipment, though the company expects to offer multiple harvesting, storing and collection techniques to Emmetsburg farmers.

All told, the Poet technology will be capable of producing 11 percent more ethanol from each corn bushel and 27 percent more ethanol from an acre of corn, according to the company.

In the past couple of years water usage has become a political hot-button issue as ethanol critics have said that farmers growing the corn, and the ethanol-production process itself, use too much water. However, the Emmetsburg cellulosic plant, once completed, is expected to reduce water usage to make ethanol by some 20 percent while cutting the amount of energy needed to run the plant by about 85 percent, according to Poet.

todd neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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