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Mar 15, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 6)

U.S. Biofuels Market Off and Running

Experts Say that Ethanol Will Penetrate 100% of Gasoline Market in Next Few Years

  • Building the Cellulosic Ethanol Supply

    All the major players—in agbiotech [Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Monsanto, Cargill], automotive and fuels (GM, Shell, BP), chemicals (Dow Chemical, DuPont), and the DOE government national labs (Sandia, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Idaho, Oak Ridge, etc.)—have cast bets on cellulosic ethanol through research collaborations and/or funding. The main enzyme producers (Novozymes, Genencor/Danisco, DSM, and Verenium) have also entered the cellulosic ethanol market.

    Poet is accepted to be the world’s largest ethanol producer, with a total capacity of over 1.5 billion gallons per year across 26 facilities. In November, Poet saw an $8-million, pilot-scale, 20,000-gallon-per-year cellulosic plant come online in South Dakota—a precursor to its $200 million commercial-scale cellulosic Project Liberty ethanol plant due to begin production in 2011. Corn cobs provide the main feedstock.

    Poet cites the standard list of commonly mentioned advantages of biofuels: national security/oil-independence, and improved environmental footprints. Mark Stowers, Ph.D., Poet’s vp of R&D, cites a University of Nebraska–Lincoln study showing a greater-than-50% reduction in GHG emissions of corn ethanol over gasoline. Using biomass for steam and harnessing landfill (methane) gas for production energy can further reduce corn ethanol GHG emissions by 60%. Life-cycle analysis by Argonne National Laboratory shows emissions from cellulosic ethanol to be 85% lower.

    “With production facilities located in rural America, jobs creation is another major component of what we’ve achieved as an industry,” Dr. Stowers says.

    The company’s BPX process converts cornstarch to ethanol enzymatically, without heat, and, according to Poet, reduces energy costs, increases yields, reduces emissions, and improves upon the industrially useful coproduct, dry distillers grains (used for livestock feed).

    Poet also employs its BFrac™ fractionation process, which separates corn kernels into three streams: endosperm for fermentation into ethanol, and germ and fiber for oils, feed, and other products. And the fibrous component can itself be used as a primary feedstock for cellulosic ethanol.

    One main challenge to a mature ethanol industry, in the opinion of Dr. Stowers and others, is the EPA regulatory cap of 10% ethanol for blending in automotive fuels. “There is a lot of lobbying activity to remove that cap, to allow the industry to reach RFS mandates and firm up the market for cellulosic ethanol,” he says.

    Project Liberty should be producing commercially in 2011, after which Dr. Stowers predicts “fairly rapid deployment of the technology. A five-year window is not unreasonable, provided mid-level blends of 15 to 20 percent are permitted. Most science points to acceptability of E15/E20 in the fleet, and pumps are already available that handle mid-level blends.”

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