10,000 miles. One impactful educational tour about the cellulosic ethanol promise.
Contrasted against the blue San Francisco sky, the white Ford Super Duty truck has a massive appearance; and even more so against the Mini Cooper parked next to it. On first look, an environmentally-conscious Californian may give the truck a look of disdain. But upon further investigation, the truck’s size isn’t what draws their attention. Its fuel does. Powered by cellulosic ethanol, this vehicle causes no harm to the environment. Decked out in environmental graphics, the truck’s appearance piques the interest of many – exactly the point of the EcoTrek “Best of America” Tour.
Tom Holm, EcoTrek’s driver and Executive Director is having the time of his life sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge for cellulosic ethanol and the solution it will provide for his home country.
Every one of the 10,000 miles of this “All-American” road trip is a demonstration of the viability, and reality, of cellulosic ethanol. It’s the ultimate “show and tell” educational tour.
“I’m taking the message of renewable energy to the fields of friends and foes, because eventually most will be persuaded that American-made fuels are good for our country, our economy, our national security and our environment. (At least one of these points hits home for every American.) I’m willing to fight to get that message understood, because the alternative is unacceptable to me, as it should be to you,” Holm writes from his blog about the tour – ecotrek.com
A tour for the record books, the EcoTrek truck is the first and only vehicle to make this cross-country journey on cellulosic ethanol. The fuel is completely American-made starting in the cornfields of S.D. and Iowa and processed at POET’s Research Center in Scotland, S.D. Since the truck is flex fuel, it runs on a mixture of 85 percent cellulosic ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
A small roadblock for the tour, this fuel isn’t available to consumers yet.
“It’s not like I can just pull up to the gas station and fill up,” says Holm.
Completely unique to most road trips, if Holm stops at a gas station it will be for a bathroom break and a snack, because he traveled with his fuel.
Almost the entire bed of the EcoTrek truck is devoted to storing fuel for fill-ups on the road. To get the truck ready for the trip no enhancements were made to the engine or fuel system. The only modifications needed to use the fuel were to accommodate the weight of the fuel for the trip.
Another aspect of the “Best of America” tour are the American-made and environmentally considerate components used to accessorize the truck.
“We’ve accessorized the EcoTrek Tour truck with tires from a plant here in America that has a really comprehensive recycling program,” Holm says. “The tires themselves are actually made out of ‘clean oil’ that is processed to be recycled much easier and have a lifespan that will exceed 60,000 miles.”
And that’s not all. Instead of chrome, the wheels are made from recyclable aluminum, the seat leather is made out of recycled plastic, the headliner is made out of hemp and the door panels are made out of a corn product that is highly biodegradable.
The journey began on January 11, 2011 at 11:11a.m. at the Santa Monica Pier, the start of the iconic Route 66, where he made his way to an event in Arizona that was hosted by the Police Association.
His trek across the Midwest included a media forecast for one of the worst winter storms in history – calling it “Snowmageddon.” The initial criticisms he received for driving the massive truck were long forgotten. The reality and viability of cellulosic ethanol were easily proven as he pulled locals out of the snow and upon arriving in Chicago, was greeted with a -25 degree wind chill.
“I was concerned that my hoses and my fuel lines were going to freeze,” says Holm. But as he stood on the Navy Pier and shivered in the ridiculously bitter cold, the truck proved to be just fine.
With weather like this, it begs the question, “Why didn’t you wait until spring to do the trip?”
“It was perfect that we got the worst storm in history, because tests are based on extreme conditions,” Holm replies. “So we were able to prove our mettle in the worst of conditions. We wouldn’t know how cellulosic ethanol performed in sub-zero temperatures unless we drove in them.”
In Chicago, he participated in the Chicago Auto Show. He met major auto manufacturers including General Motors, Ford and Chrysler and was able to stage the truck at the entrance to the show.
The tour took him to the Pensacola Navy Base in Florida where the Gulf Coast oil clean-up efforts are still taking place following BP’s Deep Water Horizon disaster last April.
“I am driving a vehicle powered by fuel that could’ve avoided the situation all together,” explains Holm.
He also ventured into “oil country” with a vehicle that screams alternate fuels. Holm, up for the challenge, says, “Preaching to the converted is for cowards.”
The route included stops at schools, sporting events and visits to American farms and factories, as well as receptions in Washington, D.C. where political dignitaries viewed the vehicle.
And to officially complete his coast-to-coast tour, he drove to Staten Island, New York and dipped the back two tires of the EcoTrek truck into the Atlantic Ocean – 6,000 miles after touching the Pacific in California.
EcoTrek’s stops along the way also included replenishing the fuel supply at the operating cellulosic pilot plant at POET Research Center. He visited POET Biorefining – Emmetsburg in Iowa, and set foot on the future home of Project LIBERTY, POET’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant.
What is cellulosic ethanol?
Cellulose is a term being heard more and more frequently in America, but few know the actual meaning. Cellulose is the most organic compound on earth. With about 33 percent of all plant matter composed of cellulose, the potential of this compound to be used as a fuel is one that can’t be overlooked.
Cellulosic ethanol can be made from a variety of feedstocks, from crop residue to algae. POET’s feedstock of choice for Project LIBERTY is corn cobs and other corn crop residue being left behind from the combine. Using only about 25 percent of the material, the remaining residue is left on the ground for erosion control, nutrient replacement and other important farm management practices.
For the past three years, POET has been working with area farmers to collect biomass during test harvests. In 2010, they collected over 50 thousand tons of biomass. When the plant is operating at a commercial scale, over 300,000 tons of biomass will be needed each year. Another big step in 2011 will be the first full-scale biomass harvest for Project LIBERTY.
Though the end product is the same, the process to make cellulosic ethanol is more complicated. The cobs and other material must be pretreated to make the tough biomass more receptive to fermentation. Once treated, the material is then fermented and distilled in much the same way that grain-based ethanol is today.
“Cellulosic ethanol is where corn ethanol was over two decades ago, just getting its start,” says Nathan Schock, Public Relations Director for Sioux Falls based POET. “Commercial scale production is just around the corner. We really felt that this tour offered us an opportunity to show the world that cellulosic is here and that it’s coming in larger quantities very soon.”
Every day POET researchers are challenging themselves to make both the corn based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol processes more efficient.
Construction is expected to begin for Project LIBERTY in late 2011 with start-up slated for late 2012. Once construction is complete, the cellulosic facility will sit adjacent to the grain-based facility in Emmetsburg.
POET’s commercialization plan also includes licensing the technology to other ethanol producers. They also plan on expanding to new feedstock such as wheat, straw, rice hulls, wood chips or switch grass.
“Although different feedstocks present different challenges; biomass is biomass,” explains Schock. “So pieces of the technology will be transferrable. What will change is material handling, collection, harvest and transportation as we move to other sources of biomass.”
This is a point where Holm’s passion about cellulosic ethanol goes through the roof.
“We can be making fuel out paper and other things. People bring those points up to me and I love that they know that much about cellulosic,” he says smiling. “And it’s true. Imagine the old trash dumps could be used as harvest sites for materials that will be used as fuel for our vehicles. We could be pulling cellulosic materials from landfills and ultimately that’s what I hope happens. Landfills are the mining grounds for the future.”
In addition, the economic boost is tremendous as it will create thousands of jobs. POET’s plan alone is estimated to eventually create 35,000-70,000 jobs.
How can I use cellulosic ethanol?
Holm says that the most common question after hearing about the promise of cellulosic ethanol is – What do I need to do to convert my vehicle to run on cellulosic ethanol?
Essentially nothing. Cellulosic ethanol is ethanol and it can be blended as E10 and E15 just like corn-based ethanol. To run on higher blends of ethanol, both grain-based and cellulosic, a flex fuel vehicle is needed.
“Right now, there are nearly 10 million FFVs in American using ethanol. When it’s commercialized, cellulosic ethanol will be used in those vehicles,” adds Holm. “The solution is within our own country, our own backyard.”
Holm believes cellulosic ethanol the best answer due to the fact that the infrastructure is in place, it’s now and it’s available.
He adds, “and the most important descriptor is, it’s viable – they are making it right now.”
A common enemy
“It’s a remarkable product – a solution to a need. Sometimes you need a common enemy to bring everyone together,” declares Holm. “One of the enemies is the energy crisis.”
There’s no denying that energy consumption on this planet is increasing steadily, oil reserves are diminishing. Taking care of the environment is a huge priority or the world’s beauty will not be experienced in quite the same way it is today. Not to mention the fight over energy is increasing tensions in many parts of the world.
But with passionate people like Tom Holm cellulosic ethanol is coming to life and America the beautiful has a good chance of staying that way. Future cross-country road-trippers could someday soon pull up to a pump where cellulosic ethanol is reality.