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World's Largest Cellulosic Ethanol Plant Opens in U.S.

Near Nevada, Iowa, workers hurry to bring the world’s largest cellulosic ethanol plant online next year. This activity caps years of research and work by DuPont to source a supply of corn stover from 500 farmers within 40 miles of the company’s new 30 million-gallon biorefinery.

DuPont joins POET, Abengoa, and Quad County Corn Processors in reaching commercial-scale U.S. production of fuel from cellulose. Already DuPont has licensed its technology for a second plant in partnership with Chinese ethanol producer New Tianlong Industry Company – not in this country, but in Jilin, China’s largest corn-producing province.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been unsuccessful in licensing it in the U.S. That is the result of the uncertainty regarding the Renewable Fuel Standard,” says Jan Koninckx, DuPont’s global head of biofuels.

At the end of November, a month after DuPont’s plant dedication, the EPA was expected to announce its final RFS rule for blending of biofuels, retroactive for 2014 and most of 2015 and for next year. The RFS is part of a 2007 energy law that expected 15 billion gallons of conventional biofuel, mostly corn ethanol, to be blended with gasoline by 2015. After that, cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuels would boost biofuel use to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Facing pressure and lawsuits from the oil industry, the EPA is billions of gallons behind schedule. No matter the final rule outcome, industry advocates say the damage has already been done.

“That market is not going to be from here unless the EPA sticks with the RFS,” says Tom Buis, co-chair of the ethanol lobbying group Growth Energy. Tea Party members of Congress are working with the oil industry to abolish the RFS altogether, says Buis. Those foes and EPA dithering have created uncertainty that “drives investors away from wanting to invest,” he says.

Cellulosic ethanol has technical and economic hurdles, too. Pulling fermentable sugars out of cellulose requires expensive enzymes. Unlike energy-dense corn, plant materials with cellulose are bulky.

“The harvest, transportation, and storage of the biomass itself is a big cost barrier,” says Chad Hart, an agricultural economist with Iowa State University.

Right now, cellulosic ethanol isn’t cost-competitive with either gasoline or corn ethanol, Hart says. “I would argue it’s still a long ways off.”

Koninckx concedes that cellulosic ethanol isn’t competitive in today’s cheap oil environment. Crude has to cost around $70 for that to happen, he says.

Yet, DuPont is finding a market for the fuel. Most of the ethanol from Nevada will go to California to meet its low-carbon fuel standard. Procter and Gamble will use a small amount to make a greener Tide detergent, replacing first-generation ethanol with advanced cellulosic. One day, poor nations may replace wood and charcoal for cooking with ethanol, Koninckx says.

“It always was our intent from the very beginning that we would license this technology. We don’t expect to become a large fuel producer,” he adds. His company has also signed an agreement to help make cellulosic ethanol in Macedonia in Europe.

DuPont makes enzymes, including those used by Quad County Corn Processors, to make ethanol from cellulose in corn kernels. Seeing improvements in those enzymes is one reason why Koninckx believes cellulose is the future of energy production.

He sums up its environmental, economic, and energy security benefits.

Among the environmental benefits: The Nevada cellulosic ethanol will have 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. And DuPont has worked with Iowa State University and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to assure that corn stover removal is sustainable, at the rate of about 2 tons per acre (or a third of the residue).

Economic benefits include 90 full-time jobs and 150 seasonal ones in Nevada, in addition to the 1,000 construction jobs the build-out of the plant brought to the area. DuPont pays an undisclosed fee for farm access to harvest stover and to compensate for nutrient losses. Improved stover management has shown yield benefits, too.

Energy security will come from many cellulosic plants around the globe that provide local sources instead of global supply chains for oil, Koninckx says. “This is pretty exciting stuff. This is really the beginning of reforming the energy landscape.” 

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