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Suitable Cellulose

If you want to benefit from cellulosic ethanol production, it is not too early to evaluate where your operation might fit into the picture.

Over the next four years, the Department of Energy (DOE) will invest up to $385 million in six biorefineries. Between the DOE funding and industry cost share, more than $1.2 billion will be invested in these biorefineries. What's more, the DOE recently announced another $23 million in funding for five projects that are developing efficient fermentation organisms to convert biomass to ethanol.

Given these recent developments, the time may be right to talk with cellulosic ethanol technology companies about growing suitable feedstocks.

“From our perspective, it's never too early to start talking about cellulosic feedstocks with farmers because they are going to be such a critical piece of this process,” says Jeff Broin, president and CEO of Poet (previously known as Broin Companies), Sioux Falls, SD.

A leader in biorefining technologies, Poet plans to commercialize a process that will efficiently produce ethanol from corn fiber and cobs. With DOE funding of up to $80 million, Poet has a $200 million expansion project under way in Emmetsburg, IA. It is developing a biorefinery that will use corn fractionation and lignocellulosic conversion technologies to produce cellulosic ethanol.

After the expansion, the Emmetsburg plant will produce 125 million gallons of ethanol per year, a quarter of which will be cellulosic ethanol. “While there are challenges in developing the process, we see only positive results from the addition of cellulosic ethanol production,” Broin says. “By adding it to an existing grain ethanol plant, we will be able to produce 11% more ethanol from a bushel of corn and 27% more from an acre of corn, while almost eliminating our fossil fuel consumption and decreasing our water usage by 24%.

“We have included several farmers in our planning for cellulosic ethanol, and their feedback has been extremely valuable,” Broin continues. “As we get closer to production of cellulosic ethanol, we will engage a wider audience of farmers to collaborate on feedstock production, collection and delivery.”

A time to learn

“The next three to four years will be a time of learning for the industry,” Broin says. “Farmers should keep abreast of collection and storage developments during this time so that they can make informed decisions if a cellulosic plant is built in their area.”

Growers near a pilot plant might find it worthwhile to visit with plant management about their interest in feedstock supplies. Other farmers should wait and watch developments in cellulosic ethanol technology, says Robert Wisner, agricultural economist, Iowa State University.

In the Midwest, corn stover will likely be the first feedstock used in cellulosic ethanol production. Switchgrass will be another. In other regions, wood chips, municipal wastes and wheat straw have been considered.

Although commercialization of cellulosic ethanol is a few years away, farmers might find near-term opportunities in producing biomass for non-fuel energy production — heating, for example, says Nathanael Greene, senior energy analyst, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), New York. “They should check what's going on in their neighborhoods,” he says.

Farming issues

Wisner suggests that, as commercialization gets closer to becoming reality, a producer who wants to grow cellulosic ethanol feedstocks should consider the following questions:

  • How will you harvest corn stover without slowing down related fieldwork? How will you store feedstock to protect it from dirt, molds, rodents, etc.?

  • How will you transport it?

  • What will be the costs of each of these operations?

  • Who will pay for storing feedstocks?

  • How much additional fertilizer will be needed to replace plant nutrients normally returned to the soil in the form of stover?

  • How much stover can be removed without creating serious erosion problems?

  • How will the cellulosic ethanol plant price stover?

  • Will the plant offer forward contracts or long-term production contracts?

  • What specific quality requirements will the plant use in buying feedstocks?

  • The plant will need a steady flow of feedstocks. Will it develop a shipping schedule for individual farmers?

“Plan what makes the most sense for the profitability of your farm,” advises Martha Schlicher, vice president of operations and engineering, Renewable Agricultural Energy (RAE), St. Louis, MO. “As a grower, I'd always err on production of a crop that has multiple uses versus a single use. Switchgrass, for example, is largely a single-purpose crop — only for use as a fuel — so it's difficult to understand why I'd consider this for any acres that have a food or feed application alternative.”

Growers should demand that cellulosic ethanol plant developers provide data they will need to support a financial decision on their farms, Schlicher says. This includes information related to yields, profits, impacts on soil, demonstrated agronomic practices and risks.

At the same time, farmers need to be mindful that cellulosic ethanol projects, because they will be so new, will require time, a great deal of capital investment from their developers, and a good management team, Greene says.

In their own operations, farmers will need to get a good handle on what it would cost them to produce, harvest, store and deliver (if required in the contract) feedstocks, says Wally Tyner, agricultural economist, Purdue University.

Farmers need to ask themselves whether they can make a profit harvesting some of the corn stover, Tyner says. “Be sure and consider the cost of replacing the nutrients removed when the corn stover is harvested,” he says.

Corn stover

The impact of harvesting corn stover on the quality of farmland (nutrients, compaction, subsequent grain yield) is not yet fully understood, Schlicher says. Farmers will need to think about erosion as they remove stover from the field.

They also must understand that feedstocks need to be very clean going into the process, explains Mike Duffy, agricultural economist, Iowa State University (ISU). “Otherwise, it will interfere with the enzymatic process,” he says.

Farmers will have a narrow window in which to first harvest grain and then harvest stover, although some work is being done to develop one-pass systems. Researchers at ISU, for example, are developing a single-pass harvesting system that will gather corn into the hopper while blowing stover into a wagon following behind.

Without such a one-pass system, farmers will need to harvest grain, then windrow and bale stover. “We will need to learn more about what kinds of bales work best,” Tyner says.

Corn cobs

Poet is working with several major equipment manufacturers, especially major combine manufacturers, to give farmers several options for collecting and transporting corn cobs to its ethanol production facilities.

“Corn cobs are a natural raw material for us to focus on due to our leadership position in grain ethanol,” Broin says. “We believe farmers will be able to supply cobs in addition to grain with minimal additional effort. With many companies working on a variety of cellulosic feedstocks, it's difficult to say which will be the first, but we are very focused on corn cobs.”


As with stover, much needs to be learned about switchgrass, including yield, agronomic needs of the crop, agronomic practices, pests and diseases, as well as its economics, storage and transport.

With University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension assistance, farmers in the state's Henry and Benton Counties are growing close to 100 acres of switchgrass this year. The experiment is expected to answer some key agronomic questions.

The cost of growing switchgrass will vary by state or region, says Burton English, agricultural economist, University of Tennessee. He notes that, in Tennessee, yields of 8 to 10 tons/acre would not be uncommon, whereas in Iowa, for example, switchgrass might yield just 5 tons/acre. This warm-season grass performs better in warmer climates, English explains.

The University of Tennessee also will learn more about switchgrass now that the state legislature has approved funding for a $41 million pilot cellulosic ethanol plant. Under the Tennessee Biofuel Initiative, the university plans to build a pilot biorefinery in eastern Tennessee that will produce 5 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year when it becomes operational. Both switchgrass and wood chips will be used as feedstocks.

Farmers will need to see economic benefits to raising this perennial crop before they will grow it, says NRDC's Greene, adding that supplying switchgrass biomass for a small heating project would be one way to gain familiarity with the crop.

Growers will want to understand the logistics of storing and transporting the biomass. It would not be practical for most farmers to store the biomass, waiting for a cellulosic ethanol plant to take delivery, Greene adds.

“The biggest drawback to any of the cellulosic approaches is the volume of the material needed,” Duffy says. “Storage and transportation of switchgrass adds considerably to the cost. This issue will have to be resolved or new technologies will need to come along that will significantly improve the conversion before we see really widespread use of cellulose.”

The volume problem will affect the amount of land needed for storage and the amount of truck traffic on the roads. It raises the issue of who will own the material throughout the year, Duffy says. “A big issue is the type of storage,” he explains. “In studies, ISU researchers found that total enclosure for switchgrass was the most expensive. But it resulted in the least dry matter loss.”

Part of the plan

“The biggest role that farmers can play is to participate in defining the practical aspects of feedstock production, harvest, transport and storage to ensure an economically viable approach can be developed,” says RAE's Schlicher. “Farmers can be a part of determining what works and what doesn't and can help identify what else needs to be resolved.” At the same time, farmers should be compensated for being a part of the analysis, she suggests.

Farmers should consider investing in collection and storage equipment to create a new income stream for their operations when the time is right, Broin says. “As we draw nearer to producing cellulosic ethanol, we will work with farmers so that they can make informed decisions,” he says. “But that's still a ways away. Commercial cellulosic facilities beyond our Emmetsburg plant won't begin construction until 2011 at the earliest so farmers have some time to observe and plan for the future.”

Federal funding

IN FEBRUARY, The Department of Energy (DOE) announced it will invest up to $385 million for six biorefinery projects over the next four years. When fully operational, the biorefineries are expected to produce more than 130 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year. The department selected the following projects:

Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas LLC, Chesterfield, MO, up to $76 million. The proposed plant will be located in Kansas and will produce 11.4 million gallons of ethanol annually and enough energy to power the facility. Any excess energy will be used to power an adjacent corn dry grind mill. The plant will use 700 tons/day of corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble, switchgrass and other feedstocks.

ALICO Inc., LaBelle, FL, up to $33 million. The proposed plant will be in LaBelle, FL, and will produce 13.9 million gallons of ethanol a year and 6,255 kW of electric power, as well as 8.8 tons of hydrogen and 50 tons of ammonia per day. The plant will use 770 tons/day of yard, wood and vegetative wastes, and eventually energycane.

BlueFire Ethanol Inc., Irvine, CA, up to $40 million. The proposed plant will be in southern California on an existing landfill and will produce about 19 million gallons of ethanol a year. The plant will use 700 tons/day of sorted green waste and wood waste from landfills.

Poet (formerly Broin Companies), Sioux Falls, SD, up to $80 million. After expansion, the Emmetsburg, IA, plant will produce 125 million gallons of ethanol a year. The plant expects to use 842 tons/day of corn fiber and cobs.

Iogen Biorefinery Partners LLC, Arlington, VA, up to $80 million. The proposed plant will be built in Shelley, ID, and will produce 18 million gallons of ethanol annually. The plant will use 700 tons/day of agricultural residues, including wheat straw, barley straw, corn stover, switchgrass and rice straw.

Range Fuels (formerly Kergy Inc.), Broomfield, CO, up to $76 million. The proposed plant will be constructed in Soperton, GA, and will produce about 40 million gallons of ethanol per year and 9 million gallons per year of methanol. The plant will use 1,200 tons/day of wood residues and wood-based energy crops.

In March, the DOE announced more than $23 million in federal funding will be available, subject to negotiation of final project plans and funding, for five projects focused on developing highly efficient fermentative organisms to convert biomass material to ethanol. The projects and the amounts they may receive are as follows:

  • Cargill Inc., up to $4.4 million
  • Celunol Corporation, up to $5.3 million
  • E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Company, up to $3.7 million
  • Mascoma Corporation, up to $4.9 million
  • Purdue University, up to $5.0 million
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