Progress Updates

Developers report synergies, challenges
By Kris Bevill | June 12, 2012

Multiple commercial-scale cellulosic and advanced biofuel facilities are currently in various stages of development throughout the U.S. and on June 6, leaders of a few of those companies gathered for an International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo general session panel, hosted by BBI International Program Director Tim Portz, to provide project updates.

St. Joseph, Mo., is home to a pilot-scale facility constructed by ICM Inc. to test its cellulosic ethanol process. Doug Rivers, ICM research and development director, said corn stover, switchgrass and energy sorghum have been targeted as feedstocks for the 10-ton-per-day facility. He listed strategic reasons for co-locating cellulosic ethanol facilities with corn ethanol plants, including shared infrastructure and synergies with steam, water and some process streams.

Steve Hartig, vice president of biobased energy at DSM, said that since the official groundbreaking in March, construction of the Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels LLC 20 MMgy corn cob-based ethanol facility has steadily continued at the site in Emmetsberg, Iowa. The cellulosic plant, expected to begin operations in late 2013, is co-located with Poet’s 55 MMgy corn ethanol facility. Biogas produced at the cellulosic plant will be used to power both facilities. It is expected that the same farmers who provide feedstock for Poet’s corn ethanol plant will also provide corn stover. Hartig said that while the current co-location model is effective for the first wave of next-generation facilities, he expects the industry will move toward an all-in-one concept, producing multiple products from a single facility.

Construction of Abengoa Bioenergy’s first cellulosic ethanol plant is also underway in Hugoton, Kan., and due to be completed late next year. Chris Standlee, executive vice president, showed photos of the completion of roads and installation of fermentation tanks. All equipment for the 23 MMgy multifeedstock facility has been ordered and biomass is already being stored onsite. Abengoa decided to construct its first cellulosic facility as a greenfield project, although co-location with existing corn ethanol facilities is likely in the future. “It’s our firm belief that having multiple feedstocks significantly reduces financial and business risks for a new facility,” Standlee said. While there are indeed many co-location synergies, Standlee pointed out several challenges as well, including the flowability of feedstocks, varied fermentation parameters and the need to keep feed coproduct streams segregated.

Another option for corn ethanol to participate in the next generation of biofuels is to switch end-products entirely. Gevo Inc. is currently starting up its first commercial-scale butanol facility in Luverne, Minn., a former corn ethanol plant that will produce up to 18 MMgy of isobutanol. Gevo CEO Patrick Gruber commended the ethanol industry for successfully building out its capacity and constantly evolving to improve efficiencies, but he made the case for producers to begin considering other products. “All of us need to think of ourselves has having biorefineries,” he said. “The product doesn’t have to be ethanol. It can be other things too.”   —Kris Bevill