Project LIBERTY continues to make headway with the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol.
When POET first put the wheels in motion for the development of cellulosic ethanol eight years ago, the milestone might have seemed light years away. After all, commercial production of the biofuel wouldn’t commence for another decade — in 2011 when the company’s Project LIBERTY would be complete.
But today, with just two years to go, it’s full speed ahead. Commercial cellulosic ethanol production is no longer a distant goal; it’s quickly becoming a reality.
For those working closely on Project LIBERTY, which involves the transformation of POET Biorefining – Emmetsburg, Iowa, into an integrated corn-to-ethanol and cellulose-to-ethanol biorefinery, 2008 was quite a year. It was spent garnering financial support to bring the project to fruition, testing equipment and perfecting processes, and educating farmers and community members—all setting the stage for construction to begin in Emmetsburg later this year.
“Project LIBERTY represents the future of fuel for the entire world. It is a high-tech solution to our energy needs that is coming to fruition through years of research and testing by POET’s team of scientists and engineers,” says Scott Weishaar, Director of Business Development for POET. “Using cobs [as feedstock] is a clean, green way to increase ethanol production while providing another source of revenue for American farmers.”
Lending a Hand
A vital part of Project LIBERTY is gaining financial support from government organizations and other stakeholder groups. In October, Phase Two of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) was announced. Those funds, part of a total $80 million grant from the DOE, amounted to $76.3 million for final design, construction, start-up and continuous operation of Project LIBERTY. The initial $3.7 million was awarded to POET in February 2007 for preliminary design, engineering and feedstock collection.
“POET is a leader in ethanol production in the United States, and they are an important strategic partner for the DOE,” says Kevin R. Craig, Biomass Branch Chief at the DOE’s Golden Field Office in Golden, Colo. “They are a classic example of this first generation of commercial plants and an ideal partner because of that.” In order for cellulosic ethanol to become widespread, he adds, it will be necessary to rely on companies like POET that have already perfected the corn ethanol production process.
Also last fall, in September, POET agreed to terms with two organizations in the state of Iowa. One, the Iowa Power Fund, was created by the state of Iowa in 2007 to promote the state’s energy independence. The group committed $14 million to Project LIBERTY. The second, the Iowa Department of Economic Development, committed $5.25 million in financial assistance. At press time, all were working toward a final contract.
POET secured the commitments by demonstrating to the organizations the potential benefits of the project for the state of Iowa. In Emmetsburg, for example, capital investment will be more than $200 million and the project will create at least 35 new jobs at the biorefinery. The cob harvests will provide Iowa farmers with additional value for every acre of corn. A payment of $30 to $60 per ton of cobs will bring an additional $5.4 million to $10.8 million annually into the Emmetsburg area. Rolling out the technology to all plants in Iowa would represent an opportunity for $150 million to $300 million in revenue. And all this from an agricultural waste product.
Throughout 2008, considerable time and effort were dedicated to the testing of equipment for harvesting corn cobs. Darrin Ihnen, a farmer in Hurley, S.D., has participated for the past two years in POET’s annual cob harvest, where various types of equipment are examined.
“We’re testing several different things on our farm. But the one that I work closely with is the POET cob collection cart,” says Ihnen, who is Chairman of the Board for POET Biorefining – Chancellor, S.D. “We pull a wagon behind our combine that catches the cobs off the back of the combine. [In 2007,] we did roughly 4,000 acres. And this year, it was less because of crop rotation.”
Through these tests, POET studies data on fuel consumption per acre and cob weight per acre, which provides a clearer picture of costs involved. These particular measurements compare fuel costs for combining corn vs. combining corn and harvesting cobs. The tests help answer questions such as, “Does cob harvesting slow down corn harvesting?” This information is instrumental in educating the agricultural community, Ihnen says.
The testing is providing great strides toward commercialization: In 2007, POET relied on three different approaches to corn cob mix (CCM) from two manufacturers and just one towable cart; by 2008, seven different systems from more than a dozen manufacturers were ready for the field.
By working with individuals like Ihnen, James A. Sturdevant, Director of Project LIBERTY, hopes other Emmetsburg farmers will see that cob harvesting is a reality. “Cob harvesting done commercially is right around the corner,” he says. “We’re very interested in talking to individual farmers … to learn who will be interested in jumping into this with both feet in 2009.”
POET’s approach in its testing is to provide farmers with tools to do their own analysis and decide what equipment and processes best work with their operations. “Growing up on a farm myself, there were a lot of decisions made sitting around the kitchen table during the winter months,” Weishaar says. “I anticipate we’ll have a lot of conversations with farmers around the table once the equipment is in the shed for the winter.”
The project was introduced on an even larger scale at its Project LIBERTY Field Day, held Nov. 6 in Emmetsburg. The event attracted approximately 750 people, despite rainy weather. Attendees learned about the different types of cob collection, saw firsthand the actual harvesting equipment and spoke with equipment manufacturers. “The farmers need close contact with the equipment and the manufacturers,” Weishaar says.
Equipment on display included:
CCM from Case IH, CLAAS and John Deere
CCM separation/screener from Wildcat
CCM grain carts from Demco and the Brent Division of Unverferth Manufacturing Co.
Whole cob collection towable systems from Case IH, Redekop Manufacturing Ltd. and Vermeer Corp.
Trail King trailer towed by CLAAS Xerion and a Demco 2-SKU cart.
Farmers in attendance also learned what would be required of them as part of the overall corn cob collection model. “From getting the cobs separated from the grains to collecting and transporting and storing at the edge of the field—that’s where the farmers’ participation stops,” Weishaar says. “POET will be responsible for picking up those cobs from the edge of the field and moving them to the biorefinery. Once the cobs are at the edges of the fields, the farmers are done.”
The fact that farmers would not be responsible for transportation came as a surprise and a relief to many in attendance. “It’s one of those things that we thought we were communicating, but [communicating the right information to the farmers] was a huge objective and very positive activity of the event,” Weishaar says.
The Road Ahead
Progress will continue throughout 2009, as it did in 2008. POET expects even more cobs to be harvested and more equipment systems to be ready for the field.
Strengthening the efforts of Project LIBERTY moving forward will be the USDA Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which will help producers who are willing to deliver eligible material to a biomass conversion facility, such as a cellulosic ethanol biorefinery. The program, part of the recently adopted 2008 farm bill, provides annual incentive payments to selected biomass crop producers.
“Prices for corn cobs will be bolstered by government investment,” Weishaar says. “The Biomass Crop Assistance Program provides matching payments of up to $45 per ton for two years for collection, harvest, storage and transportation to a biomass conversion facility, such as a POET plant.”
With the 2011 finish line in sight and cellulosic ethanol well within grasp, proponents of the biofuel believe it’s only a matter of time before U.S. dependency on foreign oil and fossil fuels is decreased. “A key part of our energy independence and future is cellulosic ethanol,” Weishaar says.
But Sturdevant is quick to point out that the market for corn-based ethanol will not disappear. “Cornbased ethanol will always be a key part of our national energy and security campaign, but we need to augment corn-based ethanol with ethanol made from other feedstocks, such as biomass,” he says. “As a nation, we have the responsibility to move swiftly.”