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Corn Cobs to Ethanol Underway in South Dakota
by Rick Huffman

"It is very intriguing to me that the birthplace of POET is also the future of POET," said Dave Bushong, general manager of the POET Research Center in Scotland, South Dakota.

Bushong is a South Dakota kid, born and raised near Tulare, graduating with a senior class of 17 students. He earned a degree as a chemical engineer at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in 1980.

He has returned home to oversee a project that his company hopes will make producing ethanol more efficient, thereby reducing the cost while increasing ethanol's energy efficiency by using corn cobs to produce cellulosic ethanol.

Following the successful start-up in the fourth quarter of 2008, POET Research Center is now producing cellulosic ethanol at a pilot scale, completing a crucial step toward development of a commercially viable product.

"We went 24 hours in November, seven days a week," Bushong said. "We continually add in experiments and trials and try to gain efficiency to improve yield or reduce energy consumption."

The project is based in Scotland, site of the original ethanol plant opened by the Broin family 21 years ago. The pilot project is the result of a significant investment in research by POET over the last eight years toward commercializing cellulosic ethanol. In 2008 alone, POET spent $20 million on research, doubling its research staff and tripling the size of its lab in Sioux Falls.

And it all started in a bankrupt, broken down "little still" that the Broin family purchased in 1987 and which doubled as POET CEO Jeff Broin's apartment during the first, hectic years that saw the plant producing a million gallons of ethanol a year.

Today, the Scotland plant is part of an overall 9 million gallon per year starch ethanol production facility, as well as a starch pilot facility. Today POET currently operates 26 production facilities in the United States and produces and markets more than 1.54 billion gallons of ethanol annually.

About 45 employees work at the Scotland site, including chemical engineers and microbiologists. General Manager Bushong has worked for Dow Chemical in Michigan and South Carolina and Fuji Photo since he earned his degree in 1980.

" We really have three-and-a-half plants here," Bushong said. In addition to the pilot cellulosic plant and the original Broin family plant, the research center includes a starch-to-ethanol pilot plant, where the company is conducting ongoing research.

"And we have B-frac," he added, "which fractionates corn into fiber, germ, and endosperm. We developed that process about five or six years ago, and have rolled out to two commercial plants."

The cellulosic ethanol pilot project is producing ethanol at a rate of 20,000 gallons per year using corn cobs as feedstock. The $8 million endeavor is a precursor to the $200 million Project LIBERTY, a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant that will begin production in 2011.

"The start-up of the pilot scale facility has been extremely smooth," Broin said. "After producing 1,000 gallons, we’ve already been able to validate all of what we learned in the lab and believe the process will be ready for commercialization when we start construction on Project LIBERTY."

Bushong says research at the pilot plant will continue, even after the opening of the Project Liberty plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

"We're developing the process and the technology for Project Liberty," he said. "Through this pilot project we can prove out that process and technology and significantly reduce the risk for Project Liberty.

POET also is pursuing an integrated starch- and cellulose-to-ethanol biorefinery model that could see cellulosic production capacity added to its 26 plants that currently produce 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol from corn per year.

Bushong says the POET vision is that all of the company's current starch ethanol plants will also have a cellulosic plant attached, or at least share the same infrastructure.

"The corn is there, the biomass is there to develop an efficient process and further displace our country's reliance on foreign oil," Bushong said.

POET’s process provides the environmental benefits of cellulosic ethanol – an 87 percent greenhouse gas reduction over gasoline according to Argonne National Laboratory – without having significant impact on the environment. Corn cobs, POET’s feedstock, are safe to remove from the field. Cobs account for only 7.5 percent of the entire corn plant according to Iowa State University. The USDA says cobs contain 2 to 3 percent of measured nutrients of the above-ground corn plant.

Bushong says part of the research being conducting at the POET Research Center is to identify the quality of the cob that is required – how much of the stalk can be processed along with the cob, how much moisture should be present in each cob, and so on.

Corn and cellulosic ethanol together hold the potential to replace gasoline as the main transportation fuel of the nation. Cellulosic ethanol is required to become a larger and larger part of the U.S. fuel supply, as mandated by the Renewable Fuels Standard.

"Jeff says there's potential of five billion gallons of ethanol just from the cob throughout the Midwest. It's just another source of domestic, home grown, hi-tech green energy," Bushong said.

Harvesting biomass has been a key challenge to commercializing cellulosic ethanol. POET’s process provides the opportunity for farmers to expand their current role in ethanol production by harvesting cobs along with corn. Ag equipment manufacturers have worked closely with POET to provide farmers with cob-harvesting options that will be available soon.

"There is significant research being conducted with farm combine manufactures, including Case-IH and John Deere," he said. "The goal is to develop the most effective means of harvesting the cob along with the corn."

One key point that Bushong tells people is that the company is maximizing the value of a bushel of corn by gaining efficiency and yield while reducing the energy it takes during the process.

To view a documentary about the pilot cellulosic ethanol plant, visit:

www.poet.com/cellulosedocumentary.htm .

 
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The American Coalition for Ethanol publishes Ethanol Today magazine each month to cover the biofuels industryís hot topics, including cellulosic ethanol, E85, corn ethanol, food versus fuel, ethanolís carbon footprint, E10, E15, and mid-range ethanol blends.
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