POET’s flagship plant is now the portal into the world of commercially viable cellulosic ethanol production for the company and the nation.
Small by today’s standards, the little still in Scotland, S.D., that took an unknown company from obscure to industry leader is once again poised to take center stage. This time, it will usher in technology that will revolutionize the energy landscape, as a pioneer in cellulosic ethanol production.
What is now the POET Research Center was a bankrupt ethanol plant in 1987 when the Broin family purchased it from a group of local investors. The industry was in its infancy, the plant had already failed once, and an early equipment malfunction threatened to halt the venture before it could get started.
“We had a number of ‘close-to-the- edge’ experiences in the early going,” says POET CEO Jeff Broin, who used the office area of the plant as an apartment during renovation to keep costs down. “During the first few weeks of production, our centrifuge just disintegrated. Fortunately, we were able to quickly find a replacement in the Midwest at very favorable credit terms, or we would have been out of business in less than a week.”
Production began in May 1988 under the name Broin Enterprises. It was the only operating ethanol plant in South Dakota. A month later, it was at full production, producing 1 million gallons of ethanol per year. Two years later, the company broke ground on the first of several expansions that would bring capacity to 2.7 million gallons per year.
Today, that plant is both a 9-million-gallon- per-year ethanol production facility and a state-of-the-art research and development center. The plant-that-almost-wasn’t pumps new technologies and processes to all of POET’s 26 plants across the United States. Now, this high-tech facility is pushing the company—and the country—into the future as it works to bring cellulosic ethanol to commercial production.
Guinea Pig Plant
Although the flagship plant didn’t officially become known as POET Research Center until March 2007, the facility and its employees have always focused on research and innovation.
“In the very early years, we purchased high-tech lab equipment that plants 10 times our size didn’t have,” Broin says. “We’ve always understood that technology is very, very important to the future of the industry and the company, which has driven us to push research and development.”
In 1991, POET completed the first expansion of the Scotland plant and formed POET Design and Construction, also housed at the plant, to specialize in plant design, engineering, construction and research.
“Soon after Design and Construction was formed, Scotland plant employees became very involved in making improvements that would be passed on to [POET’s] other ethanol plants,” says Deb Roth, laboratory manager at the Research Center and an original Scotland employee. “We had a great relationship with Design and Construction and worked very closely with them.”
In time, Scotland employees learned skills beyond day-to-day plant operations through the working relationship with Design and Construction. The jump to research was logical, says POET Director of Plant Operations Rod Pierson, Scotland’s General Manager from 1997 to 2000.
“First, the people [in Scotland] have the knowledge and are more than willing to try anything, to be a ‘guinea pig,’” Pierson says. “And second, if we have a problem, it’s not going to be as big of a problem because the people will be able to react fast.”
Today, the Research Center field tests a broad range of innovations before they are rolled out to other plants. It is the link between the bench-scale research conducted at the company’s headquarters in Sioux Falls and final commercialization. It is, in essence, a self-supporting research facility.
“It kind of resembles different wings on the same building,” POET Research Center General Manager Dave Bushong says. “The staff here is all on the same team. We have engineers, chemists and microbiologists working alongside our regular commercial operators. They even cross-train and cover for each other.”
The Research Center is small compared to plants today, which often produce 50 million or even more than 100 million gallons of ethanol per year. That makes it ideal as a “proving ground.”
“Our larger plants need to focus on continuous operation and throughput,” Pierson says. “We really don’t want to take a chance on doing too much research at those facilities and disrupt production.”
It is impossible to calculate the number of innovations in processes, products, engineering and plant design that have been rolled out to other POET plants in Scotland’s 21 years. But some of the most noteworthy accomplishments include:
- Achieving the highest titers (fermentation efficiency) in the ethanol industry, 1999–today
- Development of Dakota Gold™ distillers grains, the first such branded ethanol co-product in the industry, 1995
- Development of BPX™ technology, which converts starch to ethanol without cooking, 2004
- Development of BFRAC™, POET’s proprietary technology for corn fractionation that splits the corn kernel into fiber, germ and endosperm, 2005.
These breakthroughs formed the foundation for what is unquestionably the Research Center’s biggest project yet: Project Bell, essentially the dress rehearsal for the launch of commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production. All aspects of the process will be field tested and fine-tuned before POET commences fullscale commercial production. Construction is now complete on an $8 million facility adjacent to the Research Center that has the capacity to produce 20,000 gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol from corn cobs and other cellulosic materials.
Project LIBERTY, for which POET received an $80 million U.S. Department of Energy grant in 2007, will use that research to expand the company’s 50-million-gallon-per-year plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, into an integrated corn-to-ethanol and cellulose-toethanol biorefinery. It will produce 125 million gallons of ethanol per year, 25 million from cellulosic material, including corn cobs. From there, Scotland’s technology will go to plants across the Midwest.
“It’s exciting to realize that the birthplace of POET is also the future of POET,” Bushong says.