A refinery designed to make ethanol from cornstalks, leaves and cobs — not the grain itself — opened Friday in central Iowa, the culmination of a $225 million construction project and millions more invested in its engineering and design.
The plant, owned by chemical and biotechnology company DuPont, will use the same bacteria that tequila distillers use to make ethanol instead of yeast, which is most prevalent in the ethanol industry. It's one of the new innovations DuPont said it has incorporated into the plant, touted as the world's largest cellulosic ethanol plant; DuPont expects it to eventually make 30 million gallons of the fuel additive a year.
"Our goal is to replicate this process in other rural communities in the U.S. and around the world so that societies everywhere can realize the economic, environmental and energy security benefits of advanced renewable fuel," said William Feehery, president of DuPont Industrial Biosciences, which runs the Iowa plant.
The plant's ethanol also will go into Tide laundry detergent, replacing the corn-based ethanol long used to stabilize the detergent formula and enhance washing performance.
Refining ethanol from corn-plant material, called stover, makes use of the waste left on fields after harvest and expands the potential production of ethanol without using more of the grain itself. But the plant also opens at a time when the ethanol industry is struggling to maintain its market as it battles with the petroleum industry to retain government support.
The U.S. has more than 200 biofuel plants, and most use the corn kernel to make ethanol. A few other cellulosic ethanol refineries have opened across the U.S., but those in Kansas and Mississippi have fallen short of expectations after dealing with production problems.
The DuPont plant will be in full production next year, said Jan Koninckx, DuPont's global business director for biorefineries, but was "careful not to predict exactly" how much it'll produce in 2016. DuPont is paying 500 Iowa farmers for their stover, a new way for them to make money.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed lowering biofuel requirements set by Congress by 4 billion gallons this year and 5 billion gallons next year, noting that available fuel pumps and infrastructure limit how much ethanol can be distributed. It also said the biofuel industry hasn't produced as much ethanol as expected to increase the amount blended in the nation's supply as Congress initially envisioned.
Those same arguments are often used by the petroleum industry when it lobbies to place a limit on how much ethanol is blended with gasoline or repeal the renewable fuel standard.
Corn growers and other supporters of the higher biofuel standard say it's needed to force oil companies to improve infrastructure and deliver ethanol fuel blends above the current 10 percent mix.
U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley and Rep. Steve King, both of Iowa, spoke at the DuPont refinery's opening. They said it may be a struggle to fight off efforts to repeal the renewable fuel standard (RFS).
"I worry about somebody sticking something in a bill that would repeal it," Grassley said. "We have enough people in the Senate I believe who understand the importance of the RFS and alternative energy," he said.