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Cellulosic ethanol commercialization getting closer, but still dependent on RFS


The commercialization of cellulosic ethanol is drawing closer, but its success will largely hinge on whether the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) remains intact. This was the consensus of a panel of ethanol producers who have invested millions of dollars in cellulosic ethanol technology. The panelists spoke at the Fuel Ethanol Worskhop (FEW) in Minneapolis earlier this month.


A major strategy for these investors is to co-locate cellulosic ethanol production at existing corn ethanol sites. This enables them to capitalize on shared infrastructure (roads, rail, utilities) and operating synergies (energy trains, and nutrient and water balances), explained Doug Rivers, research & development director, ICM, Inc.


ICM’s cellulosic ethanol demonstration facility in St. Joseph, Mo., has been testing energy sorghum, an annual crop, and switchgrass, a perennial crop, as feedstocks. The demonstration plant uses approximately 10 tons of biomass per day to produce cellulosic ethanol. Rivers added that the company has been experimenting with AGCO baling equipment to produce 1,600-pound bales.


Chris Standlee, executive vice president, Abengoa Bioenergy, said his company’s pilot project in York, Neb., has been producing cellulosic ethanol from wheat straw. Abengoa Bioenergy’s six corn ethanol facilities in the U.S. produce 800 million gallons of ethanol per year.


Abengoa Bioenergy will apply what it learned from the pilot plant to its commercial-scale plant in Hugoton, Kan. The Kansas plant is expected to begin producing cellulosic ethanol from multiple feedstocks at the end of 2013. The company will contract for biomass within a 50-mile radius of the Hugoton facility. The facility will require approximately 390,000 dry tons of biomass annually. This is expected to provide some $17 million in revenues to area farmers, Standlee said. Area farmers will be able to supply corncobs, corn stover and cotton field residue.


(Earlier this year, Abengoa Bioenergy demonstrated harvesting equipment specially developed for the harvest and baling of biomass. These demonstrations included equipment developed by Power Stalk and Emerge Biomass of Kansas. Abengoa Bioenergy reported that Power Stalk has been developing equipment that will shred corn stover while leaving adequate residue on the ground. Also demonstrated was a skip row operation, which leaves alternate rows of biomass residue undisturbed. Abengoa Bioenergy also noted that Emergy Biomass demonstrated a self-propelled baler and a self-loading trailer that can pick up and load a large number of biomass bales in the field, move them to another location and unload them without assistance from other equipment.)


POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels, LLC, a 50/50 joint venture between POET and Royal DSM, broke ground in March on Project Liberty, a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant that is co-located with the POET Biorefining corn ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa.


The new facility is expected to begin commercial production of cellulosic ethanol by the end of 2013. It will use corncobs, leaves, husks and stalks as feedstocks.


Steve Hartig, vice president, Bio-based Energy, DSM, said that the company has been working with area farmers to determine how much biomass to collect in the field, as well as the storage life of the biomass. (POET-DSM has reported that it continues to establish logistics for processing approximately 770 dry tons per day of the feedstocks while the facility is under construction. Area farmers harvested some 61,000 tons of biomass for the project last fall and will continue to do so this year.)


The panelists pointed out that the RFS is critical to the continued development of the cellulosic ethanol industry. Abengoa Bioenergy’s Standlee told the audience that the RFS is the single largest reason his company has invested millions in developing cellulosic ethanol technology, adding that the industry needs the consistent, long-term support that the RFS provides.


ICM’s Rivers agreed, noting that a number of companies would not be developing cellulosic ethanol technology without consistent government policy.


DSM’s Hartig added, “We will run out of petroleum one day. But, there will be lots of solutions.” To help a winning technology like cellulosic ethanol get up and going, the industry needs support, he said.


The RFS has set as a standard 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel (e.g., cellulosic ethanol, BTL diesel, green gasoline, etc.) by 2022, and 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuel (cellulosic biofuels and biomass-based diesel, but not corn starch ethanol) by 2022.


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