Cellulosic Ethanol Looks More Promising After Tours

Kansas Viewpoint

Hearing from DuPont director of cellulosic ethanol development, touring research farm paint a promising picture for future of bioproducts

Published on: October 15, 2013

Today’s events at the North American Agricultural Journalists fall meeting in Des Moines have me very close to changing my mind on the future of cellulosic ethanol. I have often said I am skeptical of whether biomass can be collected, harvested and handled in sufficient quantity to sustain the industry.

A look at the work being done in Iowa makes the potential for exactly that look a lot more promising,

We toured the Lincolnway Energy grain ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa, which sits next door to the new DuPont cellulosic plant scheduled to go into operation in the 2nd half of next year, and heard from John Pieper, director of cellulosic ethanol development for DuPont Industrial Biosciences.

Pieper said the plant will produce about 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol a year from corn stover feedstock that will be harvested through contracts with local farmers.

“There are about 800,000 acres of corn in a 35-mile radius of this plant,” he said. “We need about 25% of that corn stover. Most of those fields produce around 200 bushels of corn per acre and leave about 6 tons of stover on the field. Our plan is to harvest about 2 tons per acre on our contract fields.

DuPont has an investment of about $228 million in the plant, which sits on a 59-acre plot of land and will employ about 80 people full-time.

DuPont compensates growers with a direct payment based on the nutritional value the harvested stover would provide for their fields, he said. But farmers do gain additional benefits from the stover harvest, including getting rid of the excess stalks that tie up nitrogen and prevent it from being available to the following crop, the opportunity to reduce tillage and the ability to save fuel by not engaging the combine head in stalk chopping during harvest.

All of this news was impressive for its clear path forward to going into cellulosic production. But the really great promise for the future of not just cellulosic ethanol but dozens of potential new bio-products came in a tour of the Iowa State University BioCentury Research Farm at Ames.

Scientists at that location are working on technologies on handling of cellulosic feedstocks and optimum use of a number of potential different types of vegetation including corn stover, bean stover, sudan grass, switch grass, sweet sorghum, miscanthus, canola and fast-growing trees such as poplar and aspen.

Plant manager Andy Suby calls the Research Farm a “one stop shop” for research on plant genomics, bulk storage of biomass, preparation of biomass for harvest, storage and use and making new products.

“A lot of positive things are coming,” he said.

I agree. Hearing about the progress on this front leaves me with a very positive feeling.