Cellulosic ethanol experts discuss supply chain issues

| May 04, 2011

It should come as no surprise that after the hour and a half time slot at the 2011 International Biomass Conference & Expo given to Scott Weishar, vice president for commercial development at Poet LLC, and Larry Johnson, owner of LLJ Consulting & Business Development, to speak on the subject of cellulosic ethanol was over, virtually no one in the crowd had left. Weishar started off the discussion by outlining the progress of Poet’s Project Liberty in Emmetsburg, Iowa, a cellulosic ethanol project that, as Weishar explained, utilizes the ethanol giant’s approach to developing a biomass supply chain, or S-S-I-R-E. The strategy was used by Poet since the project’s beginning and it has helped the company to understand what will work in a “best practices model,” according to Weishar, but it has also helped understand what won’t work.

The plan includes studying or surveying a target area for both available feedstock and possible participants, sharing plans with producers of the biomass (in this case all corn stover), including the producers in the decision-making process, running the supply chain through the farmers efforts and lastly, constantly educating farmers and participants on the need and benefits of creating and developing a biomass supply chain. Weishar explained to the crowd that assuming anything during the process would be a mistake, which entails everything from the weather to transportation used to harvest the feedstock. “How do you get farmers to do what you want them to do,” he said about creating a perfect biomass supply chain. “I don’t know if that is ever possible, but what we have done is aggressively gone out and worked on standard operating procedures.”

Along with the procedures, Weishar said they also worked to test equipment or develop new equipment to use. “We are evaluating attachments, equipment, even trailers,” he said, “things that we really took for granted until we started moving this material.” Working with 85 farmers, each of whom signed a four-year contract to supply corn stover, he also said Poet will continue to educate farmers on the potential of the biomass supply chain, expanding what they have learned from Iowa to all of their 27 other locations, eventually.

While Weishar outlined lessons learned from Project Liberty, and the idea that the supply chain can be run via participating farmers, Johnson added a different perspective on biomass handling.

Johnson, who has been working with Denmark-based Inbicon to further enhance cellulosic ethanol efforts at Inbicon’s facility in Denmark as well as future facilities in the U.S., believes that “you are going to have to have a procurement company to collect the corn stover,” adding, “I know how farmers think in the fall.” For Johnson, farmers are too focused on field work already associated to their own crops in the fall to put the attention that Johnson said is needed to ensure a quality product is harvested for use as cellulosic feedstock. Those farmers, he said, will already be using much of their equipment for other purposes, so a dedicated harvesting team will help the advancement of the biomass supply chain more than simply working with farmers.

Although Johnson did say that if anyone could figure out how to make it work it would be those at Poet, the two did parlay the same point on no-till farming practices. Both Johnson and Weishar pointed out that not only does harvesting the corn stover, rather than leaving it and tilling up the fields, not harm the soil, it actually helps it and in some cases, improves future yields. Well after their time was up, both experts, including Zhengxi Tan, senior environmental scientist at the USGS EROS Center, along with Jim Hettenhaus, president and CEO of Chief Executive Assistance Inc., stayed at the podium to address questions about cellulosic ethanol, a fuel that Johnson provided five reasons for future success. The first reason, he pointed out, relates to the massive amount of resources available for cellulosic ethanol production that will only grow as corn acres grow, followed by policies that will be centered around our independence from foreign fossil fuels, the economic and job creation ability of the fuel, the benefits to the agronomy and soil characteristics and, finally, the ability of the fuel to reduce the carbon footprint on the environment.