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Cellulosic plants finally hit higher volume

DANIEL LOOKER 09/04/2013 @ 3:42pm Business Editor

Near Emmetsburg in northern Iowa, buildings and tanks where corn stover will become ethanol are up. The rest of the new POET-DSM cellulosic ethanol plant will be done in time to start making 20 million gallons of fuel in early 2014. In southwest Kansas, at Hugoton, the Spanish global biofuels company, Abengoa, is further along. Its 25 million-gallon plant that uses stover, prairie grasses, and wheat straw could be producing by year’s end. Late next year, the world’s largest cellulosic ethanol plant will be on its way to making 30 million gallons for DuPont at Nevada, Iowa – also from corn stover. “This project will go up very fast,” Steve Mirshak of DuPont told the Fuel Ethanol Workshop in St. Louis this summer.

At last, fuel is being made on a commercial scale from the planet’s most common plant material, cellulose. This holds promise – and challenges – for the much larger corn ethanol industry.

For years, cellulosic ethanol has had mythic qualities that confounded predictions. Full-scale plants arrived years later than expected. President George W. Bush said it would be made from switchgrass. DuPont has tested that in Tennessee. Yet much new commercialization will be tacked on to existing corn refiners, like POET at Emmetsburg, or to sugarcane plants in Brazil. Small amounts of other feedstocks and fuels are in the mix. London-based Ineos, in a joint venture at Vero Beach, Florida, makes up to 8 million gallons a year from plant waste. At its Columbus, Mississippi, 13 million-gallon plant, Kior refines wood into gasoline and diesel, says an Advanced Ethanol Council report.

Next year, at least six commercial plants will be making cellulosic fuel, says Brooke Coleman, the Council’s executive director. Their capacity totals 135 million gallons.

That’s a huge leap from about 6 million gallons of cellulosic fuel the EPA requires blenders to use this year under its Renewable Fuel Standard. The potential is far greater. estimates Jan Koninckx, DuPont’s global business director for bio-refineries. “On the order of 2 to 3 billion gallons” could be made economically and sustainably from stover, he says.

Switchgrass is still potentially huge, at possibly 15 billion gallons. “You could easily meet the Renewable Fuel Standard,” he says. The goal of the RFS is 36 billion gallons of renewables by 2022. Up to 15 billion can be from corn and the rest from advanced fuels like cellulosic.

Scott Irwin, a University of Illinois economist who studies the RFS, sees little expansion beyond 50 to 100 million gallons that he views as realistic for 2014. Production is way behind the 2007 energy law’s original RFS goals.

“We were supposed to this year be producing a billion gallons of the stuff,” he says. “All of the studies I’ve seen show it’s still very expensive to produce relative to corn-based ethanol.” (One survey shows cellulosic at about $3.50 a gallon vs. $2.50 for corn ethanol.)

“Under a blend wall constraint, the 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol will either displace corn-based ethanol production completely or force the corn- based ethanol to be exported,” says Irwin. “While this is a small volume it is not a good outcome for corn based ethanol.”

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