Be Not the First, Nor the Last

By Tom Bryan | July 11, 2012

“Be not the first by whom the new are tried nor  yet the last to lay the old aside.”

Big River Resources CEO Ray Defenbaugh shared that old adage with me just before this year’s International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo. Three weeks later, Defenbaugh’s company announced that it had joined Butamax Advanced Biofuels’s Early Adopters Group to investigate the possibility of converting its facilities to isobutanol.

No, Defenbaugh didn’t ignore his own advice. The board members of Big River aren’t committed to isobutanol. They’re exploring it. And they aren’t the first to give it a look. Butamax, a subsidiary of DuPont, now has 11 U.S. ethanol plants representing nearly 900 MMgy signed on to vet isobutanol. In addition to the multiple facilities signed on with marketplace competitor, Gevo, U.S. ethanol plants actively converting, planning to convert, or considering converting to isobutanol represent well over 1 billion gallons of production capacity.

Isobutanol is this industry’s undisputed story of the year. It’s a story that has largely overshadowed efforts to integrate and co-locate cellulosic ethanol production at existing corn ethanol plants. That is both ironic and predictable. Ironic because cellulosic ethanol is being overshadowed at a time when it’s finally in reach. Predictable because producers remain skeptical about the cost and risk of being “the first by whom the new are tried.” As EPM’s Kris Bevill explains in her page 32 feature, “How Cellulosic Is Rising From Corn,” purveyors of integrated cellulosic platforms like Edeniq understand producer hesitance. Bevill conveys that most producers “want to be the fourth or fifth plant to add cellulosic technology to their process stream, after someone else has taken the leap to be the first to try it.”

So how do you get facility No. 1 on board with a major retrofit or cellulosic integration? You do it by courting producers and building critical mass with programs like Butamax’s Early Adopters Group. You do it with sheer brand strength (i.e., DuPont). You do it with strategic EPC partners (i.e., Fagen), and you do it by signing on big name producers (i.e., Big River Resources) and joint development partners like Flint Hills Resources, the ethanol plant owner and Koch Industries subsidiary that is backing—and adopting—Edeniq’s technology.

Stand-alone cellulosic ethanol plants are coming. Most of the action on the ground, however, indicates that retrofits, co-location plays, and incremental integrations are defining the next big stage of the ethanol industry’s evolution. While the world waits for the fuels of tomorrow, advanced biofuels production is being staged at existing corn ethanol plant sites today, right before our eyes.




In the “Dropping Water Use” feature article in the July issue the global average water footprint of corn ethanol was incorrectly stated. The Water Footprint Network number is 2,854 liters of water per liter of ethanol produced, a number that includes rainfall.