Poet plant ‘production pause’ furthers cellulosic ethanol’s historic challenges


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Cellulosic ethanol is produced from crop residue, like the material depicted above (via Creative Commons) .

Julia Poska | November 20, 2019

An Iowa plant that produces ethanol from cellulose found in corn residue announced Tuesday that it will stop commercial operations in February.

Cellulosic ethanol is widely regarded as a more environmentally friendly version of the plant-based fuel because it provides a use for waste products like cobs and stalks rather than an incentive to put more land into industrial corn production.

Typical ethanol, made from corn kernels, has an “energy return on investment” (EROI) of less than 2:1, most sources agree. This means that the fuel supplies only about as much energy as was put into growing and refining the product. Researchers believe EROI for cellulosic ethanol could be somewhat higher than for corn-based ethanol, but still much lower than for other energy sources.

Despite the apparent benefits, cellulosic ethanol has been slow to take off. The Renewable Fuels Association 2019 Ethanol Industry Outlook report indicated that cellulosic sources provide only about 3.4% of U.S. ethanol production capacity.

The Des Moines Register reported that personnel of the plant, owned by POET, blamed the “pause” in production on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for granting Renewable Fuel Standard exemptions to oil refineries in recent years. The RFS sets minimum levels of biofuel that gasoline and diesel must contain, so exemptions reduce what would otherwise be a guaranteed demand for biofuel.

Cellulosic ethanol production has lagged behind forecasts since it first entered commercial purview, however.  In 2007, the Bush administration called for 100 million and 250 million gallons of commercial cellulosic ethanol production in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Actual commercial production did not begin until 2012, according to MIT Technology Review.

In July 2018, ethanolproducer.com thought national production of cellulosic ethanol could top 15 million gallons, far behind the EPA’s goal of 7 billion gallons for that year.

The POET cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa opened in 2014, according to the Register. The facility cost $275 million to build and received about $120 million in state and federal incentives. The plant has a capacity to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually, according to POET, and has spent years working on “optimizing” the production process to reach full capacity.

The plant will continue doing “research and development” on cellulosic ethanol while producing regular corn ethanol at another plant next door, according to the Register. Another cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa closed in 2017, the Register also reported.

ISU research examines effects of corn residue removal


Mahdi Al-Kaisi is a professor of agronomy at Iowa State University. (Iowa State University News Service)
Mahdi Al-Kaisi is a professor of agronomy at Iowa State University. (Iowa State University News Service)

Nick Fetty | April 7, 2015

Recent research by an Iowa State University professor suggests that farmers should consider various site-specific factors when deciding whether to sell corn residue for cellulosic ethanol production.

Mahdi Al-Kaisi – a professor of agronomy – published his findings in the Soil Science Society of America Journal last month. Along with co-authors Jose Guzman (a postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State University) and Timothy Parkin (a microbiology researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service), Al-Kaisi suggested that farmers consider factors such as “topography, tillage system, nitrogen application and the amount of organic matter present in their soil to determine how much corn residue [they should remove.]” Corn residue – or corn stover – is the plant material left behind after harvest and which can be sold to create cellulosic ethanol.

Al-Kaisi and his team have been working on this project since 2008. The research team conducted the research at two sites: One in central Iowa and one in the southwest part of the state. The researchers monitored the effects of removing of corn residue, soil organic matter, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil quality.

The researchers saw that an increase in carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions on plots where the residue was removed coincided with increased nitrogen application. They also concluded that excessive corn residue removal can cause erosion.

“Residue removal has some real environmental impacts on soil health and water quality. It needs to be approached thoughtfully and on a site-specific condition basis,” Al-Kaisi said in a press release.

Iowa plant first to produce cellulosic ethanol using fiber from corn kernels


Nick Fetty | July 9, 2014
Quad County Corn Processor employees pose for a photo. Top left to right: Charlie Voss, Quad County Corn Processors (QCCP) Production Manager; Brad Yearous, QCCP Production Supervisor; Travis Brotherson, QCCP Plant Engineer, Research & Development, ACE Inventor; Rex Rimmer, QCCP Project Manager and Maintenance Manager; Josh Droegmiller, Systems Administration/ IT. Bottom left to right: Justin Ruble, QCCP Water Manager; Joe Williams, QCCP Lab Manager; Delayne Johnson, QCCP CEO. Photo courtesy Radio Iowa.
Quad County Corn Processor employees pose with the newly produced cellulosic ethanol.
Top left to right: Charlie Voss, Quad County Corn Processors (QCCP) Production Manager; Brad Yearous, QCCP Production Supervisor; Travis Brotherson, QCCP Plant Engineer, Research & Development, ACE Inventor; Rex Rimmer, QCCP Project Manager and Maintenance Manager; Josh Droegmiller, Systems Administration/ IT. Bottom left to right: Justin Ruble, QCCP Water Manager; Joe Williams, QCCP Lab Manager; Delayne Johnson, QCCP CEO.
Photo courtesy Renewable Fuels Association.

A northwest Iowa facility has recently produced the first gallons of “cellulosic” ethanol using fiber from corn kernels.

The Quad County Corn Processors plant in Galva has produced ethanol using starch from corn kernels for more than a decade and has recently begun utilizing the fiber from kernels of corn to make the biofuel. According to Quad County Corn Processors CEO Delayne Johnson, this method using the kernels’ fibers yields an extra 6 percent of ethanol per bushel of corn compared to not using the fiber. The project has been lauded by the national Renewable Fuels Association as well as the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.

Plant Engineer Travis Brotherson came up with the idea to derive ethanol from corn kernel fiber somewhat unexpectedly in 2012.Quad County Corn Processors beat out competitors such as DuPont and Poet to be the first in the state to produce the cellulosic ethanol using corn fiber.

Quad County Corn Processors has invested more than $9 million in equipment to ferment the fiber of corn kernels and the plant is expected to produce about two million gallons of cellulsic ethanol  each year. If this technology is adopted by other plants in the United States, Johnson estimates that an additional one billion gallons of ethanol could be produced compared to using previous methods.

Iowa has 42 ethanol facilities and 12 biodiesel plants in the state.

Iowa adding two cellulosic ethanol plants


Photo by swanksalot, Flickr.
Photo by swanksalot, Flickr.

The ethanol industry is building plants in many states that will convert corn plant residue, wood scraps and garbage into additives for fuel.

Two of these plants will be built in Iowa – one in Nevada and one in DuPont. The DuPont facility will be the largest cellulosic ethanol plant in the nation. It’ll be completed in 2014 and will cost $200 million.

Read more here.