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With government help, cellulosic ethanol progressing

Agriculture.com Staff 06/17/2009 @ 3:04pm

In spite of a tough economic environment that makes financing cellulosic ethanol plants difficult, the industry is making progress toward commercialization, representatives of several companies said Wednesday at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop in Denver.

One of those companies, POET based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, announced that it's forming a new division, POET Biomass, that will source corn cobs to use in its commercial 25 million gallon cellulosic ethanol plant scheduled to go into production in Emmetsburg, Iowa, in 2011. The Emmetsburg plant will also be producing about 100 million gallons of corn-based ethanol.

POET's CEO, Jeff Broin, told Agriculture Online that his company is developing plans for purchasing the corn cobs from farmers and that "we'll have to have some term contracts, we believe."

POET is already working with about 40 farmers in the Emmetsburg area who have expressed interest in supplying corn cobs to the plant. Broin said his company is also planning to help farmers acquire equipment needed to harvest the cobs and that some federal cost sharing may be available as well.

The division will source other types of biomass, including wood chips, that could be used to fuel its ethanol plants. At first, it will concentrate on working with the POET plants that produce just over 1.5 billion gallons of corn ethanol but it plans to eventually supply biomass to other companies.

At POET's pilot-scale 20.000 gallon cellulosic plant in Scotland, South Dakota, the company is perfecting a process of making methane from the liquid waste left over from turning corn cobs into ethanol. It plans to burn that as well as another byproduct, lignin. Broin told Agriculture Online that there will be more than enough energy to power the cellulosic plant it will build in Emmetsburg. Methane and lignin will replace 60% of the fossil fuel energy needed for the combined 125 million gallons of ethanol to be made from both corn and corn cobs.

Other cellulosic ethanol ventures are also at the same pilot plant stage as POET.

Another pilot plant that will initially use corn cobs is under construction and slated to open later this year in Vonore, Tennessee, The 250,000 gallon capacity plant is being built by DuPont Danicsco Cellulosic Ethanol. Vonnie Estes, vice president for business development for the joint venture between DuPont and Danisco, said the plant will later use switchgrass. And her company is planning a separate corn-cob based cellulosic plant in the Midwest.

Both Estes and Mark Stowers, POET's vice president for research and development, said the pilot plants would not have been possible without grants from the federal Department of Energy and from the states of Iowa, for POET, and Tennessee for DuPont Danisco.

And, they said, the market for ethanol needs to expand to make room for the eventual commercialization of cellulosic ethanol. Stowers said POET might have to delay the commercial cellulosic ethanol plant’s opening at Emmetsburg if the EPA does not approve higher blends of ethanol in gasoline. POET has applied for a waiver of the Clean Air Act that would allow up to 15% blends. The current limit is 10%.

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