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Call it ethanol-on-the-cob. Corn ethanol giant Poet announced plans today to power its cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, with methane derived from corn cobs — rather than natural gas. Never before have corn cobs been used as a feedstock in this way, Poet CEO Jeff […]

poet-logoCall it ethanol-on-the-cob. Corn ethanol giant Poet announced plans today to power its cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, with methane derived from corn cobs — rather than natural gas. Never before have corn cobs been used as a feedstock in this way, Poet CEO Jeff Broin said today at a press conference held at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop and Expo.

With the launch of a new division dubbed Poet Biomass, which Broin explained will manage the corn cob supply chain, Poet has also just kicked off a new effort to identify new feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol, and reiterated its plans to start commercial-scale production (25 million gallons per year) of the fuel in 2011. New feedstocks would be an interesting development for Poet, as the company has a long history of producing corn-based ethanol and has touted its corn connection as a competitive advantage.

Eventually, Broin said, the company aims to collect all the corn cobs needed to power the plant (as well as a grain-based ethanol factory) from within a 20-mile radius of the facility, thereby limiting emissions and costs associated with shipping. After the corn cobs — instead of corn starch — are used to make ethanol, liquid waste from the process will go into an anaerobic digester like the one Poet has just installed at its pilot plant in Scotland, S.D., according to a release from the company.

Poet Biomass and the new corn cob fuel effort represents Poet’s latest move to respond to a basic industry reality. As Broin said this morning, “This is an industry that never holds still.” Or, as we’ve put it before, when your core business is making ethanol from corn, you’ve got to evolve.

At this point, the ethanol industry is one that doesn’t go too long between bankruptcies, thanks to a glut of ethanol, lack of financing for new projects, corn prices that shot sky high last year and a growing body of research that says corn ethanol won’t make much of a dent in greenhouse gas emissions. Most recently, the EPA has cited an estimate that biofuels only reduce emissions by about 16 percent compared with fossil fuels.

Today’s move is an incremental one, however. Broin said corn cobs can produce only up to 5 billion gallons of fuel per year, and the Emmetsburg cellulosic ethanol plant is supposed to produce about 25 million gallons per year. By comparison, Poet says it produces some 1.54 billion gallons of ethanol each year at 26 facilities nationwide.

  1. Ethanol from corn cobs makes sense as an early mover into cellulosic ethanol. While switchgrass, wood waste and landfill waste may appear more attractive by some as a long term source of energy biomass, we need to be realistic. Cobs are one source of biomass that has enough volume and geographic concentration that it can be used today to produce alcohol fuel at the same plants that are now making ethanol from corn. The cobs will be coming from the same farmers that have been supplying the corn, which solves a major logistical issue.

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