Poet aims high with cellulosic ethanol

By Holly Jessen
Posted April 22, 2010, at 11:43 a.m. CST

Already one of the top ethanol producers of traditional corn ethanol, Poet plans to add 3.5 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol by 2022, said Jeff Broin, CEO, on April 21 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. That's more than 20 percent of the cellulosic ethanol mandated by the renewable fuels standard.

To reach that, Poet will add 1 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol production from corn stover to its existing ethanol plants. Current production numbers show Poet is producing 1.4 billion gallons at 26 corn ethanol plants in the U.S. "Our model that co-locates grain and cellulose plants takes biomass from the same acres and gets us to the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol faster," Broin said. "It also makes both ethanol processes more efficient, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions for corn ethanol, and maximizing the use of the corn plant."

The company also plans to license the technology to other corn ethanol plants for an additional 1.4 billion gallons. The final 1.1 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol will come from cellulosic ethanol produced from other feedstocks, either by Poet or through joint ventures. "We are looking primarily at other waste products: ag residues such as wheat straw and rice hulls, wood chips, paper waste and municipal solid waste," he said. "With much of the work on corn stover nearing completion in our labs, we will soon turn to studying these other feedstocks."

By the end of August, the company plans to have completed installation of an improved pretreatment system at its Scotland, S.D., pilot plant. The $2 million addition will help scale the 20,000 gallon a year facility to commercial size. This is all part of the company's quest to cut costs to reach its goal of $2 per gallon-competitive with gasoline prices but more expensive than the costs of producing first-generation ethanol.

The company's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant will be co-located with Poet's corn-to-ethanol plant located in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Called Project Liberty, the 25 MMgy plant will produce ethanol from corncobs. "We filed an application with the DOE this morning and need to have a favorable ruling from them this calendar year," Broin said. "If we get that favorable ruling, we told the DOE that we will start construction by the end of this year, which puts us on track to start up the facility in early 2012."

Broin added that the 3.5 billion gallon number could increase as Poet builds additional grain ethanol plants. "With dramatically expanding corn yields predicted by the USDA and seed biotech companies, in the near future this country will be awash in corn just as it has been for most of my lifetime," he said. "Those rising yields will lead to additional surplus corn that will enable expansion of corn-based ethanol production and more cellulose as well."

In order for cellulosic ethanol to become a reality, Broin said, policy makers must allow ethanol more access to the market and put in place the long-term stable policies needed to attract investors. "Make no mistake, cellulosic ethanol presents a tremendous opportunity for our nation," he said. "Congress has set a target of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol by 2022. This is a lofty goal, but it is achievable."