Poet Grabs $14M from Iowa for Cellulosic Ethanol


The Iowa Power Fund, which doles out millions of dollars for clean power projects, has just made a $14.75 million commitment to help corn-ethanol maker Poet build its first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the state. Add that to the $5.25 million from the Iowa Department of Economic Development, and the state has now pledged $20 million to help Poet build its cellulosic plant.

When fully completed the Emmetsburg, Iowa, plant (dubbed Project Liberty) will produce 125 million gallons per year of ethanol, of which 25 million gallons will be made from corn waste. The plant will need a total capital investment of more than $200 million, Poet says, and it will create at least 35 new jobs. Poet also says that the technology used for Project Liberty could be added onto its six other ethanol plants in Iowa, as well any biorefinery in the state — if that were the case the investment needed would total $2 billion and create 2,700 new jobs in Iowa.

Project Liberty, which will start construction in 2009 and will be operational by 2011, is an important milestone for the biofuel industry. As one of the established corn-based ethanol producers, Poet has decided to start producing cellulosic ethanol in a measured approach, by using corn fibers and cobs (corn waste) taken from conjoined traditional corn ethanol plants. Compared to companies building cellulosic ethanol plants from the ground up and having to secure feedstocks, Poet’s approach could be more economical, less risky and quicker to production.

Poet is moving relatively quickly for a large, older company — it already plans to start churning out cellulosic ethanol at a $4 million pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol facility in Scotland, S.D., which is supposed to be completed and operational within 2008.

Perhaps the biggest questions are, What are the details of how Poet will convert its corn waste into fuel? Is the process itself economical or advanced, and can its IP compete against pure cellulosic firms that have been cropping up? Some form of cellulosic ethanol will eventually replace corn ethanol, so Poet’s future will depend on the answer to these questions.


Jim Pivonka

We should investigate more efficient non-cellulosic sources of ethanol (carbohydrate sources) before putting this kind of money into cellulosic production.

Corn is clearly not the most efficient source of carbohydrate for fuel production. Both cattail and sweet sorghum far exceed the fuel yield of grain carbohydrate (starch). Sugar coverts to fuel more readily than does starch – it’s that simple.

The net energy ratios of sugarcane and sweet sorghum are similar, with 1 input rendering 8 outputs. In corn the ratio is 1:1.25.
Sweet Sorghum per acre yield >1400 gallons/acre
Yellow Corn per acre yield <450 gallons/acre.

One California estimate: in a single 4 month cycle one acre of sweet sorghum produces:
600 gallons of ethanol + 8.4 tons of dry fiber which can be converted into 4.2 Megawatt-hours electricity.
“Sugar crop can be expected to start producing low carbon fuel in 100 million gallon quantities within 5
years. Improvements in the fermentation process and optimized crops can be expected in 6 – 10 years
to produce about 1.5 billion gallons per year. Cellulosic ethanol can be expected to begin volume
production in 6 years and be at the billion gallon level within 10 – 15 years. It is reasonable that
production could be at 2.5 billion gallons/year by 2020 and displace enough gasoline to reduce global
warming pollution by 17 MMT. Electricity production of 6,195 Gigawatt-hours represents about 2% of
total expected demand in 2020vi and a 20% increase above our current renewable generation of 31,000

The idea of using cattail may be novel, and the harvesting and processing technology undeveloped. But sweet sorghum is an old, well known and well understood crop which can be raised almost anywhere, including most of the Great Plains.

We also need to reduce and eventually eliminate the tax on sugar cane based methanol, so that we could import Brazilian methanol instead of Saudi oil.

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