Cellulosic ethanol facilities begin production this year

Four commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants will begin producing the biofuel this year, including three expected to start as early as the end of May or June. In an event hosted today by Fuels America [5] at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., representatives from DuPont, Abengoa Bioenergy, POET-DSM and Quad County Corn Processors (QCCP), provided an update on their progress. But, they also cautioned that if the EPA’s proposal to reduce the volume of biofuels required in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is allowed to stand, the future of cellulosic ethanol will be at risk.

Brent Erickson, executive vice president, Biotechnology Industry Organization [6], set the tone for the event, saying, “The cellulosic and advanced biofuels industry has made very visible progress in commercialization . . . with commercial-size pioneer production facilities reaching construction, completion and commission phases.” He added that “stability in the RFS [7] is crucial at the present stage.”

The RFS has worked as intended to spawn investments in cellulosic and advanced biofuels—in a fuel market dominated by the oil industry. But, the RFS also has environmental significance. If the volume requirements for biofuels are reduced and the country continues its reliance on Canadian oil sands, increases in greenhouse gases will be unavoidable, Erickson said.

Aaron Whitesel, senior manager, government affairs, DuPont [8], said that construction on DuPont’s cellulosic ethanol facility [9] in Nevada, Iowa, began in 2012. The 30 million gallon per year facility is expected to begin production by the end of 2014.

Approximately 500 farmers within a 30-mile radius of the Nevada plant will supply corn stover as a feedstock. DuPont expects to collect approximately 700,000 bales per year from about 190,000 acres, Whitesel said. The company’s plan is to perfect the cellulosic ethanol production technology at the Nevada plant and then license this technology to other ethanol producers. DuPont itself will not build other cellulosic ethanol plants, Whitesel said. But, without the stability of the volumes required under the RFS, licensees may not come to fruition, he suggested.

Abengoa Bioenergy [10] expects to begin producing cellulosic ethanol by the end of May or early June at its new plant in Hugoton, Kan. This facility will have the capacity to produce 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annual plus 21 megawatts of renewable electricity (part of which will fuel the plant and the remainder sold back to the grid).

Abengoa will produce the biofuel from farmers’ corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble and prairie grasses within a 50-mile radius of the Hugoton plant. Chris Standlee, executive vice president, Abengoa Bioenergy US Holding, LLC, said that the plant will use approximately 300,000 dry tons of biomass per year.

Headquartered in Spain, Abengoa has been working on the development of cellulosic ethanol for a decade. It has experience in scaled up production, and has seen substantial improvements in technology. The company has seen the cost of enzymes used to produce cellulosic ethanol, for example, drop from $1.85 per gallon in 2010 to less than $.50 per gallon this year, and expects that cost to further decline to $.30 per gallon in just a few years. The cost of yeast used in the process also has been reduced by about 20 percent. Finally, Abengoa’s yield has increased from 55 gallons per dry ton of biomass in 2010 to 75 gallons today. Standlee said the company’s goal is to produce ethanol for $2-$2.30 per gallon.

“This looks to be a good year for cellulosic ethanol as long as regulators and legislators don’t stand in the way,” Standlee said.

Doug Berven, vice president, corporate affairs, POET-DSM [11], said that Project Liberty [12] in Emmetsburg, Iowa, is expected to begin production by the end of June. It will have the capacity to produce 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year, and will require about 770 bone dry tons per day of corn stover.

Project Liberty, which is co-located with a starch ethanol plant, will reduce greenhouse gases by more than 80 percent compared to gasoline, Berven said. The facility is expected to generate $20 million to $25 million in revenues for farmers selling feedstock to the plant.

One of the world’s largest ethanol producers, POET has increased ethanol yield by more than eight percent since 2001. During that same timeframe, it has reduced energy consumption by 30 percent. Finally, it has reduced water consumption from 17 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced in 1987 to 2.6 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced today.

POET-DSM uses a raw starch hydrolysis process that reduces energy consumption and it expects to license this technology. Berven said that the company expects to see more rapid deployment of co-located facilities in the future. “There will be rapid deployment as long as there’s a market. That’s why the RFS is so important.”

Finally, Quad County Corn Processors [13] is in the final stages of its Adding Cellulosic Ethanol (ACE) bolt-on facility in Galva, Iowa. ACE converts kernel fiber into cellulosic ethanol, corn oil (which can be used in the production of biodiesel) and a higher protein feed. The QCCP facility is expected to begin producing cellulosic ethanol in June.

The audio of today’s event is available here [14] (or listen below).