Cellulosic ethanol is poised to bring additional opportunities to America’s heartland.
The image of the American farmer is ingrained deep within the nation’s consciousness. It is the picture of a rugged, determined and industrious individual whose grit and unyielding drive — along with his agrarian brethren — forms the agricultural backbone of the nation’s economy.
The past half-century’s changing economic conditions and evolving corporate structure have led to well-documented shifts in the scale of the American agricultural landscape. However, both large- and small-scale farmers look toward the future as they develop new, innovative and ecologically sound ways to impact the economy through the production of food and, increasingly, fuel.
Firmly embracing the challenge, cellulosic ethanol researchers are poised to help carry agriculture forward, open the market to new opportunities and power the journey with a swell of sustainable energy springing from the American heartland.
“This will give the American farmer a tremendous new opportunity,” says Jeff Broin, CEO for POET. “They will have a chance to convert other parts of their crops into a new source of revenue while creating a more energy-secure nation.”
As the tides that sustained traditional farm economies continue to shift across the country, and specifically in the Midwest, the agricultural community is currently looking in a new direction: cellulosic ethanol, a specialized form of ethanol derived from the cellulose building blocks that comprise the bulk of all organic plant materials. Until recently, the difficulty of breaking cellulose into its core components limited its commercial viability as a feedstock material. Project LIBERTY, a $200 million endeavor sponsored by POET, is making tangible the large-scale implications of commercial cellulosic ethanol production.
“The American farmer faces change and opportunity that has not been seen in a long time,” says Mark Dilts, Feedstock Development Engineer for POET. “The optimism that allows them to weather spring storms and summer droughts will allow them to grasp the opportunity. But the greatest challenge is having the foresight and courage to try something new.”
In February 2007, Project LIBERTY received an additional boost through its selection for a grant from the United States Department of Energy, potentially totaling $80 million throughout the life of the project. Project LIBERTY will include a conversion of a standard dry-mill grain ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, into a nextgeneration biorefining facility capable of producing ethanol from both traditional (corn) and nontraditional (cellulosic) materials—in this case, corn fiber and corn cobs. The conversion will introduce a wealth of new technologies into the ethanol production process, including pre-treatment of tough biomass materials for easier breakdown and increased enzymatic exposure.
According to Project LIBERTY representatives, these technological advancements pave the way for new value-added opportunities of agriculture throughout the Corn Belt.
Ultimately, Project LIBERTY’s innovations are helping turn economically feasible, large-scale cellulosic ethanol production from dream to reality. In fact, by the time the Emmetsburg plant conversion is completed, the facility will increase its present output to 125 million gallons per year, 25 million gallons of which will be cellulosic, increasing the amount of ethanol produced by 11 percent per bushel and 27 percent per acre. Additionally, it will reduce fossil fuel consumption by using lignin (corn cob waste) to power the plant.
Where’s the biomass?
The versatility of organic materials that make up biomass should mean, theoretically, that it is available nearly everywhere and in boundless quantities. As the cellulosic ethanol industry prepares for meteoric growth, however, biorefineries are looking to specific locations for consistent sources of quantity and quality biomass materials.
When seeking ideal locations from which to obtain biomass, Reed Mayberry, POET Biomass Manager, considers myriad criteria including proximity to existing and developing plants and biorefineries, potential yield per acre and economics per ton.
Given that the bulk of biomass materials are harvested from existing ethanol feedstock (specifically corn), collection is currently centered around the same footprints as the nation’s most productive corn crops—hence the potential of biomass technology to influence so heavily the economy of the Corn Belt.
As POET continues to extend its wide network of plants and biorefineries throughout the Corn Belt, the lucrative benefits of biomass harvesting and cellulosic ethanol production will spread along with them.
Project LIBERTY’s benefits are almost incalculable for the heartland; even its most basic results should guarantee tangible benefits for rural America by bolstering and, in some cases, revitalizing local economies. In addition, ripple effects from the project and other green initiatives will decrease the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and reduce global warming—benefits extending well beyond the region and even the country.
The December 2007 passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act gave the burgeoning cellulosic ethanol industry an additional shot in the arm, setting an unprecedented Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)—36 billion gallons per year by 2022, more than 16 billion gallons of which is carved out for cellulosic ethanol. The RFS provides confidence for the nation and establishes a legitimized and solid market moving forward.
THE ROAD TO CELLULOSE
If cellulosic ethanol is the ultimate destination for rural America’s new path, then biomass is its most important stepping stone. Biomass represents a wealth of agricultural resources once considered waste. Today, it holds extraordinary new opportunities for Corn Belt farmers because of its ability to be transformed into cellulosic ethanol.
“Biomass can be anything organic that falls outside of traditional grain crops, including trees, grasses and corn cobs,” says Reed Mayberry, Biomass Manager for POET. “Biomass provides a valueadded opportunity for farmers by opening their products to new markets and assigning value to materials that were previously considered nothing more than waste or by-products.”
Though biomass materials have been around for centuries, they have only recently gained momentum as a commodity, largely due to developments in engineering and biotechnology. On the flip side, increased emphasis on biomass collection is paving the way for innovations of a different sort, as the agriculture industry works to refine the ways in which these resources are harvested, stored and transported.
In the case of corn cobs, the key source of biomass for Project LIBERTY, POET has begun teaming with American farmers and several of the industry’s leading original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)—John Deere Case IH, CLAAS and other equipment manufacturers including Demco, Kinze and Vermeer. The OEMs reign in existing technologies, seek out new ones and ultimately determine the most efficient means of cob collection.
In the fall of 2007, the POET team began implementing new collection methods on 4,000 acres of corn on the South Dakota farm of Darrin Ihnen. These included combines retrofitted to collect a mix of both kernels and broken cobs, specialized corn cob mix separators designed to sort cobs from kernels and even an entirely new device—the Cob Caddy. Designed specifically to separate cobs from the chaff and husks, the Cob Caddy redistributes nutrient-rich compost materials back into the land while collecting the cobs in a towed wagon behind the combine.
“Collecting corn cobs makes sense,” says Ihnen. “[The producers] know how to grow corn, so it makes sense to use a by-product of the corn plant to produce more ethanol and continue to reduce our dependency on foreign oil.
“Input costs are rising for producers, and this is another income stream for farmers.”
Now that the initial test harvest is complete, researchers’ roles are twofold. First, they will analyze the aforementioned collection methods to determine their potential role in the development of widespread cob harvesting. Next, they will switch gears to focus on the most effective and efficient means for storing the cobs, and eventually for transporting them to the plant to begin transformation into cellulosic ethanol.
The experimentation on Ihnen’s farm was an important step toward the harvesting of corn cobs on a commercial scale, but it was only the first step of many. Once Project LIBERTY’s Emmetsburg facility is complete, that plant alone will necessitate an estimated 275,000 acres of corn cobs per year to reach its maximum output potential of 125 million gallons of ethanol per year. Only through continued prototyping, field testing and the cooperation of established industry leaders and everyday farmers can such a massive goal be brought to fruition.
As corn biomass materials continue to gain ground and join the ranks of traditional agricultural output, the economic future looks increasingly bright for Midwestern farmers. Says Mayberry, “In its simplest form, biomass represents new, localized market opportunities and, more importantly, a new channel of potential revenue for the American farmer.”
The power of the corn cob
Aside from ubiquitous corn cob pipes that appear each year during snowman season, many vastly underestimate the possible uses for corn cobs. Though long considered a by-product of corn agriculture and production, cobs comprise 15 percent of the crop’s aboveground mass. While they were traditionally returned to the earth as compost or used for animal feed, corn cobs represent a significant new feedstock as cellulosic ethanol approaches market feasibility.
In addition to their feedstock value, ground corn-cob particles have excellent abrasive and absorptive qualities, while maintaining low weight and significant volume characteristics that lend them to a variety of uses extending well beyond feedstock.
“Corn cobs crop up in our lives in places most people never expect, including everything from abrasives to animal bedding and absorbents. They are truly among the most versatile of crop by-products, encompassing more than 200-plus uses,” says Reed Mayberry, POET Biomass Manager.
What does the energy bill mean?
In December 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The measure, designed in part to expand production of renewable fuels and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, includes a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) of 36 billion gallons by the year 2022.
This goal is a lofty one for the country, but on a very basic level, what does it mean for the burgeoning cellulosic ethanol industry and biomass growers?
Many believe that traditional U.S. corn ethanol production could top out at roughly 15 billion gallons per year. That means much work lies ahead. POET and its industry counterparts must work swiftly to bring cellulosic ethanol to an economically sustainable level.
In fact, to reach the 36 billion gallon RFS, the industry will have to produce more ethanol from biomass materials than from corn—a change from today’s standard practice, but one that will spell wonders for the economy of the Midwest once it reaches fruition. Farmers, equipment suppliers and the general public should benefit from the production and increased availability of renewable energy sources in their own backyards.