Poet-DSM Project Liberty marks an energy milestone

By Anna Simet | September 04, 2014

“The naysayers said it couldn’t be done, but we did it.”

“This project is so much more than the sum of its parts.”

“Today marks a historical moment in time…the shift of the fossil age.”

“This event marks the turning of an important page of our history books.”

After 10 years of research and development, seven years of feedstock collection, three years of building and refining a partnership with Netherlands-based Royal DSM, a thousand concrete trucks, millions of pounds of steel, and the work, sweat and dedication of hundreds of construction workers, under a cloudless sky on a cool, September morning in Emmetsburg, Iowa, Poet-DSM’s Project Liberty became a reality.

Poet employees couldn’t hide their proud smiles from the mass of reporters, farmers, students, industry stakeholders and the rest of the general public who arrived at the site of the 25 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant for a chance to witness history in the making. “We’ve already made thousands of gallons of fuel,” said Steve Hartig, general manager at Poet DSM Advanced Biofuels, as he waited for the first of many tours of the facility to begin. “We’ve encountered lots of little problems, as expected, but nothing too scary. We shut the plant down about a week ago to get ready for today.”

Escorting initial tour attendees by the massive, gleaming gold stacks of baled corn stover waiting to be hauled into the plant, tour guide and Operations and Engineering Manager Beau Schmaltz explained Project Liberty’s flexible corn stover collection model, which he described as “a big undertaking—we have been pulling in biomass for several years…we accept loads Monday through Friday so we can just pull from storage on the weekends…we have 150-plus days’ worth [of fuel] on site.”

Bales are hauled into the nearby biomass building and twine or net wrap is removed via machine, and, rather than being discarded, is burned in the fuel boiler to make steam for the power and starch plants. Initial bale running began in July, Schmaltz said. “It’s been challenging, but it’s been fun. We scaled up based on our Scotland plant in South Dakota, and there are many things we’ve learned going from batch to continuous.”

After bales are shredded to desired size, they are fed into the pretreatment system to break down sugars. Some fines are sent back into the process, some are sent into the boiler, and other debris such as rocks, are used on site for landscaping purposes. Following pretreatment, feedstock is pumped out of the bottom of the reactor and sent through what Schmaltz dubbed as “Sac Alley,” a walkable, sweet-smelling outdoor corridor made up of an intricate network of silver and yellow piping and giant tanks. After reaching this point, biomass is held for 120 hours to reach optimal enzyme performance conditions.

After fermentation and distillation, which Schmaltz described as Poet’s “bread and butter,” the finished, 200-proof alcohol is sent to ethanol tanks and is shipped out from there.

Following a viewing of the control room, which the plant’s entire process can be monitored from via 10,000 different control points, the tour moved vertical up many steep flights of stairs to view the plant’s solid/liquid separation process. There, six massive Andritz filters press stillage into two streams.

Liquid resulting from the process is sent to an anaerobic digester to create methane to power the plant process, and the remaining solid material—which weighs up to 100,000 tons per cake, the weight of eight Dodge trucks—is dropped down to the floor. “These machines do a good job at getting a very clean liquid out—we don’t want any solids in digestion,” Schmaltz said, adding that the technology was existing and used for other purposes such as making soybean oil.

Solid material is sent to a 225-psi steam boiler for power generation. Overall, it takes about eight days for a bale of corn stover to enter the process and be transformed into cellulosic ethanol, Schmaltz said.

Shortly after King of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander arrived on site, as well as other government officials including Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, U.S. DOE Deputy Undersecretary of Science and Technology Michael Knotek, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a formal ceremony to celebrate the grand opening ensued, where attending POET employees and farmers were hailed for their dedication and meaningful contributions to the success of Project Liberty.

Vilsack encouraged advanced biofuel fuel doubters to visit Emmetsburg to disprove notions that it isn’t real, sustainable or good for the environment, and highlighted the economic benefits the project has on the region, including $20 million spent annually on corn stover purchases from farmers.

Closing out the ceremony, Poet founder and Chairman Jeff Broin delivered an honest account of how his company and project liberty came to be—beginning on his family’s farm in Minnesota, where his father—who was in attendance—began experimenting with ethanol production on a kitchen stove. “Neighbors thought we were crazy when we bought a closed plant in Scotland, South Dakota,” he said. “And they thought we were every crazier when we went around talking to farmers about the possibilities. We were told we’d never get enough biomass, that ethanol would never been cost competitive, and that it was a fantasy fuel. Well, we became used to being called crazy, and here we are today with something I never could have dreamed of. Project Liberty has been a fantasy, but today, it is real…hundreds of years from now, it is my hope that people will say this all started because of some crazy people in a small town in Iowa had a dream.”