Here We Go

It’s about to happen. Two of America’s first big cellulosic ethanol plants—the kind we’ve all been waiting years to see—are now substantially finished and in startup. Abengoa, Poet-DSM will be producing large volumes soon. DuPont will soon follow.
By Tom Bryan | March 10, 2014

Finally, it’s about to happen. Two of America’s first big cellulosic ethanol plants—the kind we’ve all been waiting years to see—are now substantially finished and in startup. I don’t want to jinx their commissioning by overstating their completion, but Abengoa Bioenergy and Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels—and later, DuPont—will be producing big volumes of ethanol from corn residue this year.
 
Taking nothing away from the accomplishments of other cellulosic ethanol plants now operating or being commissioned, the sheer size of these high-profile facilities in Iowa and Kansas simply merits excitement. As we report in “Early Risers,” by the end of the second quarter, both Abengoa and Poet-DSM will have their plants online—producing 25 million gallons apiece—and America will be on its way to producing 50 million to 60 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually. DuPont is expected to follow, adding another 30 million gallons of capacity by year’s end.

History tells us it won’t be simple. To date, there have only been a few large-scale cellulosic biofuel plants commissioned worldwide, and each has faced steep operational hurdles. The Beta Renewables’ cellulosic ethanol plant in Crescentino, Italy, and Ineos Bio’s Indian River BioEnergy Center, for example, continue to wade through optimization challenges.   

For context, we offer “Optimization Outlays,” which examines the scale-up learning curve that’s being experienced by KiOR in Columbus, Miss. It’s not ethanol that KiOR makes, but rather cellulosic gasoline and diesel fuel from Southern Yellow Pine. We report that the company is working to increase the operational output of its plant, and from the look of its fourth-quarter production numbers, making progress. 

Examining other advanced biofuel aspirations, we profile two companies employing widely different approaches to produce sugars for next-generation ethanol. “The Sugar Producers,” explains that Sweetwater Energy and Proterro are pursuing unrelated platforms that strive for similar ends: supplementing ethanol plant fermentation broths with sugar water. Sweetwater has offtake agreements in place with ethanol plants and is much further along than Proterro, but both platforms are promising. 

Finally, this month, we revisit the company that essentially introduced the U.S. biofuels industry to the latent value of high-purity lignin. In “Lignin’s Big Leap,” we report that Canada-based Lignol Innovations Ltd. is still intent on scaling up its biorefining process and creating a market for its super-clean lignin. But like so many other biobased products, the real challenge is not selling the stuff, but making it.