Q&A - Corn Story Takes the Cake

John Caupert pilots the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center, now in its 10th year as an industry research partner.
By Tim Portz | March 29, 2013

When the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center was established on the campus of the University of Southern Illinois in 2003, the industry had not yet grown to 100 plants and the renewable fuels standard was still a concept being formulated by industry policy wonks. Four short years later, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 laid a gauntlet at the feet of the industry and NCERC, calling for 36 billion gallons of biofuels in the transportation fuels market by 2022, the majority of required gallons coming from production pathways not yet deployed at commercial scale. Today, John Caupert, director of NCERC, and his team are working to improve existing production techniques while also working with private partners to test and perfect cellulosic and advanced ethanol production pathways. He’s confident the processes being developed by his team in collaboration with private clients will one day yield the advanced biofuels gallons the industry has been called to deliver.

You grew up on a grain farm in southern Illinois. How did that experience shape you personally and professionally?

Growing up on a farm made me the person I am. From a very young age, I learned the importance and value of dedication, discipline and hard work. I learned to not expect a reward or an entitlement simply because you exerted physical effort. During the 1980s, when I was a teenager, I watched my parents paying interest rates of 20 percent on money borrowed for operating loans and other items of necessity to the farming operation. So, I not only learned the value of a dollar, I learned to appreciate the value of a dollar. When thousands of farmers across the country were going out of business, through no fault of their own, my parents not only held onto the farm, they put me and my two sisters through college at the same time. So, in addition to all those other learned values, I was able to recognize the importance and value of an education, regardless of economic or socio-economic status. 

What is the best argument for continued and robust research in corn ethanol production? 

I feel there is no argument necessary. Far too often, particularly as of late, it seems like the corn ethanol industry has been forced to defend itself. Defend itself for what? We have nothing to be defensive about. Our industry should always be on the offensive. Why? We have the best story anyone could possibly tell. We have a story of job creation. We have a story of being the economic engine driving rural America. We have a story of reducing dependence on foreign oil. We have a story of enhancing our national security. I have something much better than an argument—I have an ongoing story of success.

What role does NCERC play in the continued advancements being made in this industry? 

NCERC is a living testimonial that public/private partnerships can work. While the taxpayer built the NCERC, it was built to be utilized by the private sector, which we are doing. More than 50 technologies, now in the commercial marketplace, passed through the doors of our facility in the first 10 years of our existence. 

As policy has evolved, and industry has evolved, the NCERC has evolved. We have conducted 15 contractual advanced biofuels client projects in a row, complimented by our own in-house cellulosic research on corn bran conversion to ethanol. We are proud to no longer be the best kept secret in the biofuels industry, as we are now known as one of the most capable assets to the biofuels industry.

How has NCERC’s research in corn bran-to-ethanol progressed recently? 

The research has been going very well. We have repeatedly been called upon by the private sector, as well as the public sector, to discuss our efforts in this area of research. We have repeatedly met with members of President Obama’s administration to discuss the successes of the corn bran-to-ethanol research. 

Corn bran is the most common, but often the most forgotten, form of cellulose. Corn bran is present at every corn ethanol plant in operation. A major benefit of corn bran is that it requires no special methods of harvest, it requires no special methods of handling and it requires no special methods of transport. Corn bran is already there. For the cellulosic feedstock community, we feel that with successful conversion of corn bran to ethanol the floodgates of opportunity will be opened for numerous other sources of cellulose. 

If bran-derived ethanol could be classified as an advanced biofuel and this technology were perfected and deployed across the existing production platform, we’d be looking at hundreds of millions of gallons of cellulosic ethanol. Are you hopeful the EPA will amend its position on not allowing the advanced biofuels classification for corn-derived ethanol gallons? 

We feel that if corn as a feedstock can compete, it should be allowed to compete. Yes, we would like to see the EPA classify this ethanol as an advanced biofuel. Technologies such as fractionation, anaerobic digestion, conversion of corn bran to ethanol and numerous others have proven to not only compete, but are in some cases better than the standards that have been set. It is time for the playing field to be level, it is time for corn to have an equal opportunity to compete as a feedstock.  

Recognizing that some of the ongoing research at NCERC is for private clients and protected by nondisclosure agreement, what are some of your current efforts that you and your team are really excited about? 

If only we could directly answer that question. We are very proud of the non-disclosure agreements we have in place with every one of our private sector clients. This is evidenced by the fact that today more than 93 percent of our revenue is generated via contractual research we conduct for the private sector. I guess you could say, we are doing a great job for our clients and we are doing a great job of keeping our mouths shut about our clients. That being said, we are very excited about the contractual work we have been doing in the advanced biofuels and specialty chemicals market space. There are numerous technologies that are marketready today. These technologies are simply waiting for market-entry opportunity.  

How does the corn ethanol industry guarantee itself a spot at the table for the eventual cellulosic ethanol buildout? 

We have to stay united, we have to stay focused and we have to stay committed. There are opponents to our cause and our efforts, but generally, their story is old and tired, while ours is not. As an industry, we may be small in numbers, yet we are giants in the impact we are having on the well-being of this nation. All 300 million Americans are benefiting from our nation’s biofuels production and utilization. At times, we may be called upon to inform others that, if not for corn ethanol, there wouldn’t be a cellulosic ethanol industry. 

At NCERC, we are confident we are leading the campaign to commercialize cellulosic ethanol, and we are 100 percent confident this will be accomplished by beginning with the purest form of cellulose that exists—corn bran.

Crystal ball time. When NCERC celebrates 20 years in 2023, what role will it be playing in an industry that by then will be asked to deliver 36 billion gallons of ethanol to the U.S. fuel market?

As the industry continues to evolve, as it will in order to reach the 2022 requirements of the RFS, NCERC will continue to be on the forefront as the recognized source for third-party, proof-of-concept technology testing and validation. Our contractual work, with the private sector, will be complimented by our in-house research unit, leading the way in cellulosic ethanol and advanced biofuels discovery. By 2022, the industry will, perhaps, be in a state of evaluating means by which to maximize efficiencies of production of advanced biofuels. NCERC has always been perfectly positioned to evaluate, consult and test methods to maximize production efficiency, and we will continue to be positioned in this manner for decades to come.