Poetry in Motion

With 23 plants in operation and three under construction there's no doubt Poet LLC has been growing constantly since it first began producing ethanol from corn 20 years ago. EPM takes a look back at the company's early years and explores its future.
By Kris Bevill | June 02, 2008
The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people."Walt Whitman

Jeff Broin changed the name of his family's business from Broin Companies to Poet LLC in 2007 to represent, rather than describe, what the company does. "A poet takes everyday words and turns them into something valuable and beautiful," he says. "We use the creativity that comes from common sense to leave things better than when we found them."

Broin, who is a bit of a poet himself when he talks about the ethanol industry, has developed the company's strategy around the common sense of the "common people." He has used that strategy to grow the company into the largest ethanol producer in the world.

Groundwork for Success
The Broin family started in the ethanol business 20 years ago. Lloyd Broin and his sons, Jeff and Rob, began experimenting with ethanol production in 1983 at their farm in Wanamingo, Minn., as a way to make more money from their corn. By 1986, they were ready to begin commercial production. Their first family-owned plant opened in 1988 in Scotland, S.D., and, with 22-year-old Jeff Broin as general manager, was soon operating at its capacity of 1 MMgy.

Broin says he could never have predicted then that the company would develop into the enterprise it has become. "We were just really trying to start a business in the ethanol industry that was profitable," he says. "We focus much more on being successful than we do on being large. I think that focus on success has helped to make us one of the largest in the industry."

In 1991, the Broins expanded their Scotland facility for the second time, increasing production to 2.7 MMgy. By 1994, the facility was expanded so many times it was producing 600 percent more ethanol than it had initially been capable of when it first became operational.

The Scotland plant is still in operation today. The facility produces 10 MMgy of ethanol and is the site of Poet's research and development team. Jeff says a pilot cellulosic ethanol plant that the company is working on will be built later this year next to the Scotland facility, continuing the initial location's vital role in Poet's success.

Technology is Key
Major technological breakthroughs were made in 2000 when the company began work on its Broin Project X (BPX) technology. Once it was perfected in 2004, BPX eliminated the cooking phase of the ethanol production process, saving the company an immense amount of money compared with traditional fermentation methods. The first plant to use the BPX technology was Poet's Emmitsburg, Iowa, facility. Today, BPX is used in all but two of Poet's 23 plants. Jeff says it's simply not economical to use BPX in the two facilities
currently operating without it. He says that all current and future Poet facilities have and will continue to be designed to operate using that technology.

In addition to saving money, BPX technology creates dried distillers grains that have more nutritional value than those produced using traditional methods, according to Poet. The company developed and trademarked its Dakota Gold brand of distillers grains in 1995 and started Poet Nutrition to market the feed product. Since then Poet has gained a reputation as a supplier of one of the highest quality feed products on the market. Poet Nutrition currently produces more than 3 million tons of distillers grains annually and Broin says he expects to see distribution of that product to continue to grow in the United States and abroad. "We've been very aggressive at building international markets for our Dakota Gold brand," he says. "We've been pretty successful in the Pacific Rim and we're establishing markets in Europe. We've done a lot of exporting to Mexico."

In 2006, the company made an announcement ushering in a new era in ethanol production. The Broins began work on "Project Liberty" their cellulosic ethanol technology. An $80 million grant from the U.S. DOE in 2007 sealed the deal for the company to explore a new type of ethanol production in the United States. "Our commitment to cellulosic ethanol began more than seven years ago when we developed the BFrac technology," Broin says. BFrac fractionation technology allows the producer to split the corn kernel into germ fiber and endosperm. Jeff explains that the endosperm portion of the kernel can be used for ethanol production, while the fiber portion (the hull of the kernel) can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol. The company plans to make ethanol from the corn cobs and is developing methods to harvest the corn and the cobs in one pass over a field.

Poet is currently conducting significant research and development toward the production of cellulosic ethanol at its research center in Scotland. The company has also partnered with the DOE to design and build its first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility in Emmitsburg, Iowa.

The Evolution of an Industry Giant
While it is clear that a lot of ingenuity and hard work contributed to Poet's success, several significant changes have played a role in the evolution of the company as well.

Lloyd and Rob got out of the ethanol business in 2007 when Jeff bought their shares of the company. He became chief executive officer and changed the name to Poet. The company expanded to eventually include more than 1,300 employees, but the company headquarters are still in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Broin has no intentions of ever leaving.

When the Broin family started its ethanol business, plants were cooperatively owned by the farmers who sold corn to them. Broin tells EPM that every Poet facility is now its own limited liability corporation and no longer uses the co-op model. The company has, however, stayed true to its co-op roots by continuing to offer ownership opportunities to local growers. But today, farmer-owners are free to sell their crop anywhere and aren't required to own a share of a Poet facility in order to sell their crops to the plant.

Maintaining Leadership
Because of the recent criticism of the ethanol industry, leaders like Jeff spend much of their time talking about the merits of ethanol and de-legitimizing arguments against it, but he says he's happy to do it. As a founding member of Ethanol Promotion and Information Council and the Renewable Fuels Now coalition, Broin says he accepts all opportunities to speak about ethanol, whenever possible. Does he think all the negative views on ethanol will impact its future as a fuel? No, but he does envision a combination of traditional and cellulosic ethanol as the fuel of the future. "We continue to make grain-based ethanol more efficient all the time and improve the economics," he says. "Cellulosic ethanol is going to be highly challenged to meet the standards set forth by [corn-based] ethanol." Grain-based ethanol has been the launch pad for cellulosic ethanol and, in Broin's opinion, both forms will be competitive in the future.

Traditional ethanol plants will still be the cornerstone of Poet as the company works toward meeting its cellulosic goals. The company has opened 18 new ethanol production facilities in the past six years at various locations throughout the Corn Belt and is focused now on Indiana and Ohio. The company is on track to open 65 MMgy facilities in North Manchester, Ind., Marion, Ohio, and Fostoria, Ohio, in the fourth quarter of this year and more expansions are planned at Poet facilities throughout 2009.

Broin revealed his poetic side at a recent plant opening in Alexandria, Ind., when he talked about a "renewable revolution" to the more than 1,000 people who attended. His quiet but forceful voice asked them to recall a simpler time in our nation's history. "The American farmer was important at one time," he reminded them. "Over 95 percent of [the people of] this country were farmers. It will return."

Kris Bevill is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at kbevill@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 373-0636.