(3BL Media/Justmeans) - There was big news in Emmetsburg, Iowa this month—the opening of a major cellulosic ethanol plant. The plant, which is the first commercial-scale cellulosic facility in the US, is a joint venture between Poet and Royal DSM. Code-named Project Liberty, the plant was christened in a ceremony featuring His Majesty Willem-Alexander, King of the Netherlands, along with a host of others including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Deputy Under Secretary Michael Knotek of the Department of Energy, and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.
The plant will initially process 570 million pounds of biomass, primarily crop residue in the form of corn stover, each year, converting it to 20 million gallons of ethanol. At full capacity those numbers will increase to 770 and 25 million, respectively.
Traditional corn ethanol production uses the age-old process of distilling starches into alcohol, the same way that distilled spirits are made. The ability to convert the leaves and stalks and other waste material containing lignocellulose was something that had never been done before. The science was difficult and it has taken longer than expected, leading the EPA to revise the numbers in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a mandate for the production of bio-fuels to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Concerns have been raised as to the implications of removing potential nutrition from the soil. This is offset, at least in part, by the fact that crop densities have nearly doubled over the past thirty years. Additionally, only 17% of the residue is currently being taken. Studies have shown a range of impact between a slight decrease in yield to an actual increase.
The entire bio-ethanol program has been under attack since its inception from a variety of sources including the oil industry, which fears the loss of business, environmentalists who are concerned about water and air pollution, and consumer, food industry and anti-hunger groups who have expressed concern that using crops and/or cropland for fuel production could lead to higher prices or worse. This latter concern was realized to some degree last year, with the Midwestern drought leading to a falloff in production. The good news was that much of the shortfall, which primarily impacted animal feed prices, was offset by increased production in other parts of the world. Then of course, there are those people who don’t like the government telling them anything.