FEW: Corn foundation leads to biorefinery future

By Dave Nilles | June 02, 2008
Web exclusive posted June 18, 2008 at 5:53 p.m. CST

Despite the recent misguided accusations lobbed at the fuel ethanol industry, corn remains the foundation for current and near-term production. And, according to several industry experts, it could help the industry move beyond solely ethanol and distillers grains as end products.

The biorefinery concept continues to gain momentum in the ethanol industry. While at least 36 billion gallons per year of ethanol is required by 2022 under the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, the industry holds potential to move well past that and also provide a bevy of specialty chemicals, according to speakers at the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop and Expo being held in Nashville, Tenn., June 16-19. "The biotech industry and ethanol industries will be the chemical industry framework for the future development of chemicals," said Mark Stowers, Poet LLC vice president of research and development.

Poet is at the leading edge of rolling out the biorefinery concept, which essentially models itself after the petroleum and petrochemical industry. In this instance, corn and other renewable agricultural residues replace crude oil as a feedstock. The South Dakota-based company continues to develop its Project Liberty, which is being implemented at its ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. The 50 MMgy facility is being expanded to 125 MMgy, with 25 MMgy from corn fiber and cobs. By adding cellulosic production to an existing corn-based ethanol plant, Poet will be able to produce 11 percent more ethanol from a bushel of corn, 27 percent more from an acre of corn and almost completely eliminate fossil fuel consumption, while decreasing water usage by 24 percent, the company said.

Stowers said biorefineries open the possibility of creating specialty chemicals such as benzene, organic acids/alcohols and protein-based biomaterials. Benzene can be produced from "green" glucose out of a biorefinery, Stowers said. "This is a real potential," he added. "It's there. The technology is clearly in place. Having a strong corn (base) to the ethanol industry is critical not only for the footprint of cellulosic ethanol, but also for the biorefinery of the future."

Aspen Technology consultant Mike Mendez echoed Stowers' comments. Mendez said the ethanol industry is well-positioned in biochemical and computational knowledge to make an impact on the broad specialty chemical market in the next 20 years. He said the trillions of dollars spent on existing infrastructure already in place to create products from crude oil will be capable of handling inputs from the ethanol industry.

Mendez specifically mentioned the production of ethylene from ethanol. Ethylene is the most important building block in the petrochemical industry, he said. The production of ethylene from naphtha, which is any of various volatile liquid hydrocarbon mixtures used chiefly as solvents and diluents, is three to five times more complicated than ethanol in terms of equipment and process steps, Mendez said. It was just one of many examples of products that can be derived from the basis of a corn-based ethanol industry.

"The chemical industry will not collapse with the inevitable decline of petroleum reserves," Mendez said.