Ethanol critics chuckled with Poet announced last year that it would produce ethanol from corn cobs by 2009. Now, the world's largest ethanol company has the last laugh.
Following a successful start-up in the fourth quarter of 2008, Poet Research Center in Scotland, S.D. is now producing cellulosic ethanol at a pilot scale, completing a crucial step toward development of commercially viable cellulosic ethanol.
The Scotland plant is producing ethanol at a rate of 20,000 gallons per year using corn cobs as feedstock. The $8 million endeavor is a precursor to the $200 million Project Liberty, a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant that will begin production in 2011.
"After producing 1,000 gallons, we've already been able to validate all of what we learned in the lab and believe the process will be ready for commercialization when we start construction on Project Liberty next year," said Poet CEO Jeff Broin at the grand opening yesterday.
The pilot plant is located in Scotland, S.D., the site of a 9 million gallon per year starch ethanol production facility and a starch pilot facility. Poet is pursuing an integrated starch- and cellulose-to-ethanol biorefinery model that could see cellulosic production capacity added to their 26 plants that currently produce 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol from corn per year. Poet plans to license this technology to other ethanol plants.
A top goal for the pilot plant in Scotland is to lower the cost of producing cellulosic ethanol. "Today we are a dollar a gallon higher than grain-based ethanol,” Broin said. "That may sound like a lot, but a year and half a go it was several dollars higher. We have made significant strides in reducing the cost per gallon above grain-based ethanol. By the time Project Liberty comes online, it is our intention to be 50 cents a gallon above grain-based ethanol. Within 5-7 years we believe we can be competitive with grain based ethanol through advancements in technology.”
Poet's process provides the environmental benefits of cellulosic ethanol - an 87% greenhouse gas reduction over gasoline according to Argonne National Laboratory - without having significant impact on the environment. Corn cobs, Poet's feedstock, are safe to remove from the field. Cobs account for only 7.5 percent of the entire corn plant according to Iowa State University. The USDA says cobs contain 2% to 3% of measured nutrients of the above-ground corn plant.
The pilot project is the result of a significant investment in research by Poet over the last eight years toward commercializing cellulosic ethanol. In 2008 alone, Poet spent $20 million on research, doubling its research staff and tripling the size of its lab in Sioux Falls, S.D.