One Giant Leap

February 6, 2009 09:28 AM

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind are more than just words for Jim Sturdevant. As director of Poet's Project Liberty, he is responsible for guiding the company's first steps into the new-age world of cellulosic energy by making fuel from corncobs.

Project Liberty, the transformation of an existing dry grind corn ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, into an integrated corn and cellulosic ethanol facility, looks to develop a market for corncobs. Once commercial in 2011, the facility will produce 100 million gallons of ethanol, of which 25 million will come from cellulose.

If successful, Sturdevant says, it won't take long for cellulosic technology to become commonplace at Poet's 25 other ethanol plants.

The move may even save the industry. U.S. farmland produces enough corncobs today to supply 5 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol, or 3.5% of the nation's fuel supply, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

"We feel like the guys at NASA must have felt when they got the challenge to put a man on the moon," he says.

Technology blastoff. With volatile corn prices and President Obama calling for greater supplies of alternative fuels, there could be no better time to push cellulosic technology.

Poet already is churning out cellulosic ethanol from corncobs at its $8 million pilot plant (nicknamed Project Bell) in Scotland, S.D.

Researchers at Project Bell first broke through cellulosic walls in 2000 when they pioneered a fractionation system (BFrac) and later patented a starch conversion technology called the BPX process. The BPX process converts starch to sugar and then ferments it to ethanol without heat, reducing energy costs by nearly 12%, increasing ethanol yields and decreasing emissions, according to Poet.

Meanwhile, Poet is developing innovations in the area of biomass pretreatment to allow a more efficient breakdown of the corncob and enzymatic hydrolysis to produce fermentable sugars. Poet has partnered with enzyme companies to move forward on the treatment of biomass.

"Poet has been at this a long time, and we find them to be excellent research partners," says John Ashworth of NREL, which has partnered with Poet on various ethanol research projects for more than a decade.

"What we really respect is that Poet knows how to build highly efficient grain ethanol plants and that they appear to be transferring that approach to cellulosic ethanol facilities," Ashworth says.

"The other key is their systems approach," he adds. "They understand that they need to have a supply chain that collects, stores and transports biomass feedstock to the plant."

Poet is working with more than 10 agricultural machinery manufacturers to develop innovations in corncob collection, storage and transportation.

Investment support. The level of interest and investment in cellulosic research and development, by both public and private entities, shows that the industry is rising to meet this challenge, says Poet CEO Jeff Broin.

The projected cost of Project Liberty is more than $200 million, and the Department of Energy granted $80 million to the project. The state of Iowa and Poet agreed to terms for an Iowa commitment of $20 million to commercialize cellulosic ethanol.

Partners DuPont and Genencor, a division of Danisco A/S, are investing $140 million over three years to develop and commercialize their own cellulosic ethanol technology using corn stover and sugarcane bagasse. Oil giant BP is investing $90 million in Verenium to develop cellulosic ethanol technology.

Even startup companies like Coskata, which is developing technology to gasify biomass into syngas and then add proprietary microbes to turn the syngas into ethanol, have found supporters ready to invest in cellulosic technology. Coskata has secured almost $30 million, including money from venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

The U.S. government has shown its overall commitment to cellulosic ethanol with grants of up to $385 million to help six cellulosic ethanol companies (including Poet) develop technology.

Just as President Kennedy put tremendous resources and dollars into putting a man on the moon in 10 years, America is finally putting resources behind cellulosic ethanol, Broin says.

"The ethanol industry has dreamed about cellulosic ethanol for 25 years, but no one was really spending the research dollars to make it happen," Broin says. "Now we are, and we actually can see the future."

To contact Jeanne Bernick, e-mail

Top Producer, February 2009

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