POET seeks to develop next-generation ethanol products even as controversy swirls
Wade Robey hears the critics calling for an end, or at least a respite, from the federal mandate that fuel makers buy ethanol. As senior vice president for technology of POET, one of the nation's leading ethanol producers, he is sensitive to questions about the tremendous amounts of energy and water used to produce corn and ethanol.
Yet Robey steadfastly pushes his staff of 60 researchers to develop an exciting next generation of more efficient fuel products from biomass. Robey outlined many of the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based company’s advances at last week’s Future Farm Americas conference in San Francisco.
One of POET’s big new area of emphasis is cellulosic ethanol. The company plans to build one of the first commercial plants in the country in Emmetsburg, Iowa. (DuPont earlier this year said it will start work on a cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa as well. And a major plant is expected to be operational in Italy later this year.)
Dubbed Project Liberty, the POET project will be a joint venture with Royal DSM, a $12 billion Dutch-based company. DSM is developing traits engineered to make it easier to break down cellulose from corn stover (the leaves, stalks and cobs of corn) and reduce the cost of applying enzymes.
The new facility, slated to begin operations at the end of 2013, will build on the success of a pilot plant POET opened in 2008 at its Scotland, S.D.-based research facility. POET has been working there with farmers to bale and transport residue left in fields after harvest.
"POET brought a basic technology to the table for the cellulosic facility. DSM is now coming in with the source of enzymes and fermentation yeast that will be dropped into the technology box that POET has developed," Robey explained.
Robey believes cellulosic ethanol represents a huge opportunity. If the technology is deployed as planned at POET’s network of 27 existing corn ethanol plants, the company could produce up to 1 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. POET currently has the capacity to produce more than 1.6 billion gallons of ethanol, 9 million pounds of high-protein animal feed and thousands of pounds of bio-based oils and lubricants.
Federal law requires refiners and importers of gasoline and diesel fuel this year to use 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in transportation fuel blends. That's not going to happen. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that just 8 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol will be produced in 2012, and it will largely come from demonstration and pilot plants. The agency has said it will adjust the mandate to reality.
Energy experts have touted the potential of cellulosic ethanol for years. It can be made from a variety of non-grain sources, including agricultural residue, grain sorghum, wheat, barley and potatoes. The process produces a clean-burning, high-octane fuel that is the same as ethanol made from corn.
POET, which wants to be the leader in cellulosic ethanol, is testing many of those raw materials. It hopes to produce cellulosic ethanol everywhere it makes corn ethanol. "We think the way going forward is to co-locate [production]," Robey said, noting that in that way the operations can share power and POET can optimize infrastructure investments.
Robey said POET's new cellulosic plant will produce 25 million gallons a year, initially, and go from there. The plant already produces 55 million gallons of corn ethanol annually.
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