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Commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plant opens in Iowa

Hydrocarbon Engineering,

A joint venture company called POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels held a grand opening of its Project Liberty cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, according to the US Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Today in Energy report released on the same day. The plant is to be the first of three commercial scale cellulosic ethanol facilities under development in the Midwest that convert corn stover (corn cobs, leaves, husks, and stalk) into ethanol.

Evaporators at cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

While nearly all ethanol produced in the US comes from corn starch, ethanol can also be produced from cellulosic feedstock such as wood, grasses, straw, and agricultural waste. Despite legislated mandates as part of the federal renewable fuel standard (RFS), there has been very little production of cellulosic ethanol to date. For instance, the legislated RFS target volume for 2013 was 1 billion ethanol equivalent gallons of cellulosic biofuel, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reduced to 6 million gal. in August 2013, based on its assessment of supply capacity. Ultimately, EPA retroactively reduced this requirement to 0.81 million gal. in May of this year, after production shortfalls.

According to the EIA, the three facilities now under development or beginning operations in the Midwest offer the best near term prospects to prove technology for producing cellulosic ethanol at a meaningful scale. These plants use a more complex process than the recently announced effort to ferment the naturally accessible sugars present in corn kernel fiber into fuel, which only recently received EPA approval as a cellulosic biofuel meeting RFS criteria. The process used by POET-DSM, enzymatic hydrolysis, has been developed over many years and is one of the best understood ways to produce cellulosic ethanol. The first global commercial scale application of this process occurred last Autumn when Beta Renewables started production at its Crescentino, Italy facility. Beta’s parent company, BioChemtex, plans to start up a similarly designed plant with partner GranBrio in Brazil later this year.

Adapted from a press release by Emma McAleavey.

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