Poet updates Project Liberty at NDSU bioenergy event

By Erin Voegele
Posted September 24, 2009, at 11:05 a.m. CST

North Dakota State University hosted a local bioenergy conference Sept. 22 in Fargo, N.D., titled Northern Plains Bioeconomy: What Makes Sense? featuring a variety of local experts in the fields of biomass, biofuels and engineering.

Poet LLC's Doug Bervin, director of corporate affairs, was a featured speaker at the event. In addition to offering attendees an update on the development of Poet's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, Bervin also spoke about biomass procurement and handling issues, the current status of the ethanol industry, and the actions that must be taken in order to allow the industry to move forward.

Poet is currently working to develop Project Liberty, its first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production facility, at an established corn-ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. "Excellent progress is being made [on Project Liberty] – I would say surprising progress," said Bervin. "We are further along today than we thought we would be."

According to Bervin, Poet has designed Project Liberty to be a bolt-on solution to cellulosic ethanol production. The facility is essentially co-located with one of Poet's existing corn ethanol plants. He said that this integrated model of development helps with the economics of cellulosic ethanol development by allowing the cellulosic facility to utilize the pre-existing infrastructure that has already been established for the corn ethanol plant.

Project Liberty will produce cellulosic ethanol using corncobs as its primary feedstock. "When you look at the country, the vast majority of the biomass is right here in the Corn Belt, and that just happens to be the exact location of where our ethanol plants are," Bervin said. "What we are going to do is start with the low-hanging fruit. We are going to take corncobs along with corn grain, and [those cobs] are going to be our cellulosic feedstock."

According to Bervin, there are a variety of reasons why corncobs are a good source of cellulosic feedstock. He said that cobs are a more consistent feedstock than corn stover. In addition, cobs offer a higher ethanol yield, and are twice as dense as corn stover, making them more economical to transport.

Bervin also said farmers are open to supplying corncobs to cellulosic ethanol facilities because they provide little benefit to soil when left on the field, and can be picked up in a one-pass harvest system. "We are developing systems that will collect [corncobs] in a manner that does not cause the farmer to take a whole lot more time on the field," Bervin said. In addition, Bervin estimates U.S. farmers could earn approximately $3 billion annually through the collection and sale of corncobs.

On Nov. 3, Poet will host its second annual Liberty Field Day in Emmetsburg where approximately 19 original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) will showcase their solutions to biomass collection. According to Bervin, these systems will feature four different cob collection methods; pull carts, a corncob mixed system, a flex harvester, and a bailer system.

This year Poet is working with local farmers to collect 12,000 tons of corncobs from 20,000 acres. In 2012, when Project Liberty is expected to be fully operational, the company will need to collect 252,000 tons of corncobs from 315,000 acres of farmland in order to supply sufficient feedstock to the cellulosic ethanol production facility.

Bervin said that, to date, Poet has been able to bring down the per gallon cost of its cellulosic ethanol process to a level that is approximately $1 more than the cost to manufacture 1 gallon of corn ethanol. "By the time we open Project Liberty in 2011, we fully expect to have that cut down in half again, so we will be about 50 cents more per gallon in production costs than we do with grain."

Bervin closed his presentation by noting that without a stronger focus on market development, it will be difficult to develop cellulosic ethanol production in the U.S. This is because the current blend limit of 10 percent ethanol has allowed the corn ethanol industry to saturate the market, effectively creating a blend wall. In order to overcome this issue, Bervin said the regulatory cap on E10 has to be lifted to allow for more ethanol blending.

"We are moving fast to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production," Bervin said. "Feedstock development is there, the cellulosic ethanol technology is there, but the market development is still underway. We can not get a loan to build Project Liberty in Emmetsburg, Iowa unless we change the market."