The Year is Here

2014 will bear witness to the commissioning of some of the first U.S. commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants.
By Chris Hanson | March 05, 2014

Those in the cellulosic ethanol industry know “five more years down the road” as a phrase that’s been associated with commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production for a very long time. With the close of 2013, it’s safe to say that timeline is no longer relevant, as the time has finally come.

In the advanced biofuels arena, no cellulosic ethanol projects have been watched more closely than those being built by Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels, Abengoa Bioenergy and DuPont Industrial Biosciences. Together, these cellulosic ethanol plants rise from the plains and fields, acting as beacons to the advanced biofuel industry that is just pulling its ship to shore.


Abengoa Bioenergy

The Abengoa cellulosic plant in Hugoton, Kan., began construction in July 2011 and is one of the first cellulosic plants expected to begin its commissioning process in 2014. “We are just on the verge of a startup here,” says Christopher Standlee, executive vice president at Abengoa Bioenergy. “We started commissioning the boiler and electric cogeneration unit and sold our first power back to the grid on Dec. 27.”

Another highlight was the big construction push that began last summer. “Starting in about July, we had the big final push to get construction completed,” Standlee says. “So starting in July and running through this month, we had more than 1,000 full-time construction workers onsite. That’s a pretty massive undertaking.” Attending a morning safety meeting and seeing more than 1,000 workers donning reflective vests at the plant is an awe-inspiring site, he adds.

The plant's second phase, initiating the overall startup, was conducted from late January through early this month. “We certainly expect to have some production,” Standlee says. “I mean certainly not consistent production, we expect a ramp-up period, a debugging period and that sort of thing, but we certainly expect to have some production in January and March.”

For the most part, all major construction is complete, Standlee says. The next step for the facility is the commissioning processes that are expected to take some time. “I don’t think we’re going to finish our commissioning for a while,” he adds. “It could very well take a period of months. But we’re going to start that process clearly in the first quarter of 2014, probably sometime in February.”

Project Liberty with Poet-DSM

Project Liberty broke ground in Emmetsburg, Iowa, in spring 2012, and is the second commercial-scale cellulosic plant that will complete construction and commissioning phases this year. The plant, which sits adjacent to Poet’s biorefining ethanol plant, has taken shape over the year and is now visible in the sky from within Emmetsburg.

Since 2013, the site has transitioned from a few tanks and construction activities to a structure that resembles a cellulosic plant, explains Steve Hartig, general manager of licensing at Poet-DSM. “When you’re in Emmetsburg, it kind of looms in the skyline,” he says. “Looking at photographs of the site, people can observe the fermentation and enzymatic hydrolysis tanks, but can also witness units and facilities being built that are unique to cellulosic ethanol production, such as the biomass receiving area where the plant completes feedstock pretreatment and the anaerobic digester that handles the liquid waste stream from the ethanol process.”

As construction projects are completed, personnel begin the commissioning process on the unit, Hartig explains. The startup ability and functionality of the pretreatment equipment have been tested, and the main hydrolysis and fermentation tanks are, for the most part, mechanically complete and have been filled with water to test the pumps and scan for leaks.

At the end of January, the front-end pretreatment system, a solid-fuel boiler and the anaerobic digester were nearly complete. The boiler and digester will utilize the liquid and solid waste streams to generate steam for both the cellulosic and neighboring ethanol plants.

“Basically, the plant will be mechanically complete at about the end of [Q1 2014], and we’ll be starting up in second quarter,” Hartig says. “As we finish a piece of the plant, we start doing the testing and the work on that piece. So it’s kind of a rolling process.”

 DuPont Industrial Biosciences

DuPont broke ground its facility during a chilly, late-November morning in Nevada, Iowa. Since then, the facility has undergone construction phases to bring its concept to fruition. The facility, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year, will utilize 590,000 bales of corn stover each year to produce 30 MMgy of cellulosic ethanol.

DuPont has been a bit quiet in sharing its plant updates and playing its cards close to the chest, due to its intense focus on delivering a stellar project, according to Wendy Rosen, global public affairs leader at DuPont. “I think the team is almost singly focused on getting this plant up and running in 2014 and meeting that milestone,” she says. The company is working with its teams, Fagen and KBR, in addition to its own internal team, to start producing cellulosic ethanol once that last projects are finished, she adds. “We’re pretty happy that construction is continuing in staying on track, and we’re going to deliver this in 2014.”

As construction progresses, it certainly catches the attention of those passing though. “Folks that are in the area, they drive by and say, ‘Wow! This is incredible,’ because it is an enormous undertaking, and we have state-of-the art technology going into this plant,” Rosen says.

The plant is still expected to finish construction during the fourth quarter of this year, Rosen says. “This team is incredibly focused on hitting these marks because all of that plays right into our capital expenditures here, and we’re very good at keeping ourselves to what we said we are going to do,” she says. “We did a groundbreaking when we said we were going to do it, and we’ll see an opening when we said we are going to do it in 2014.”

Building the Feedstock Community

One of the most daunting tasks in bringing a cellulosic facility on line might not be so much the technology and equipment challenges, but the procurement of feedstock. “We’ve built numerous ethanol plants of our own and we know what the construction process is like,” Standlee says. “We know our technology works, we’re comfortable with our ability to handle the product once it’s there, but one of the biggest challenges is the massive amounts of feedstocks that you have to deal with.”

For the past four years, Abengoa had experts in Hugoton, negotiating and visiting with growers to develop mutual understanding about how to be good stewards of the land and avoid overharvesting  corn stover. “We certainly don’t want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building a facility and shoot ourselves in the foot by having a farmer find out he’s taking too much stover off his land and didn’t leave enough to stop erosion and leave some of the nitrogen and nutrients back in the soil.”

In addition to the summer construction push, Abengoa’s other milestone was harvesting more than 100,000 tons of stover by the end of last November. “As you imagine, that is a massive amount of feedstock that required a lot of coordination to get it off the land and into some sort of storage. We’re very proud of that milestone,” Standlee says. Abengoa’s plant can operate on less than 15 percent of the available corn stover within a 50-mile radius, which allows the facility to exist in a noncaptive market situation, he adds.

Feedstock procurement is a major feat Poet-DSM and DuPont also strove to achieve, and succeeded. A group called Poet Biomass has been working for Poet-DSM’s outreach the past seven years to develop the stover collection procedures, and has been stepping up its efforts each year to collect additional biomass, Hartig says. “This year, we have about 200 farmers under contract to supply biomass and we’ve harvested about 100,000 tons of biomass,” he adds. “That’s enough to get us really up and running through the next harvest. It’s going well, but it’s taken a lot of time because it’s a new crop.”

Poet-DSM are completing multiple angles of outreach to local farmers in order to secure its corn stover. In addition to brochures and informational videos for farmers dropping off corn at the neighboring ethanol plant, the company engages with local universities to complete independent studies surrounding corn stover harvesting and manages booths at local county fairs to meet local citizens. “It’s a lot of different outreach, teaching and talking,” Hartig says.

Using its expertise and existing relationships through Pioneer, DuPont also had a successful year in securing corn stover for its cellulosic plant and had more than 200 farmers participate in its procurement process. “This is our fourth harvest and we have had incredible response year over year,” Rosen says. “The best thing I can say about it is that we practically have a 100 percent return rate on folks that have participated the year before.”

DuPont is on track to have enough supplies once the plant opens, Rosen adds. “When we license this technology, a lot of potential licensees and customers will feel really solid about our expertise in the supply chain piece,” she explains. “That is a very complicated piece in this whole puzzle, which is figuring how to build a sustainable supply chain to fuel a plant that is going to be producing 30 million gallons of fuel per year. It’s a big deal.”

 Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Biomass Magazine
[email protected]