NEC panel affirms 2014 is the year of cellulosic ethanol

By Tim Portz | February 18, 2014

Chris Standlee, executive vice President at Abengoa Bioenergy New Technologies, began his remarks on the “Advanced Ethanol: Building Plants, Coming Online” panel at the National Ethanol Conference by stating, “I’m thrilled to be able to say that this is the pivotal year in advanced ethanol production.” Standlee and his fellow panelists are well aware of the skepticism and fatigue within the industry about the progress of the commercialization on next generation ethanol.

The panel, moderated by the Advanced Ethanol Council’s Brooke Coleman featured presentations and updates from Standlee, Kenneth Hill from DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol, Delayne Johnson from Quad County Corn Processors and Steve Hartig from POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels LLC.

Following his initial remark, Standlee then moved into a photo rich presentation of the progress being made at Abengoa’s Hugoton, Kan., facility. Standlee’s presentation, loaded with construction photos would typify all of the session’s presentations and underscore the notion that the story of the commercialization of advanced ethanol has progressed beyond the days of computer generated graphics and is now illustrated with photographs.

Abengoa’s facility in Hugoton will generate both advanced ethanol and biomass-derived power and Standlee reported that the facility’s biomass boiler has been started up and delivered electricity to the grid in December of 2013. Standlee shared that Abengoa continued to see conversion improvements and had every reason to believe they would experience yields around 80 gallons per ton once the plant came online.

The facility will utilize just a fraction of the area’s available biomass, with the vast majority of the feedstock coming from corn stover. Wheat straw and milo stubble will also be utilized, however, neither are expected to deliver more than 10 percent of the needed inputs.

DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol’s Kenneth Hill walked attendees through a slide deck highlighting DuPont’s progress at its Nevada, Iowa, facility through the fall and winter.  “We actually expect to start commissioning some of our utility components in the second quarter of this year with full start up expected after substantial completion in late 2014,” Hill said.

Delayne Johnson outlined the altogether different pathway towards cellulosic conversion that Quad County Corn Processors took. “We were just looking to get more out of the corn we were already working with,” reported Johnson. The proprietary process will convert the corn kernel fiber from corn the facility is already handling and converting that fraction into cellulosic ethanol. This process will yield around 0.16 gallons of cellulosic ethanol per bushel of corn the facility handles. Looked at this way, this process may seem underwhelming. However, Johnson points out that if the technology were deployed across the entire corn ethanol fleet, the produced gallons would approach 2 billion gallons.

POET-DSM’s Steve Hartig wrapped up the presentations by reviewing the progress at the joint venture’s Emmetsburg, Iowa, facility. Hartig talked about the venture and its importance to both POET and DSM saying, “We think it is a good business and it fits the corporate cultures of both our businesses.”

When asked about the impact of the EPA’s proposed reductions in the renewable volumes obligation and its impact on follow along deployments of the varied technologies to produce cellulosic ethanol the panel was quick to take a longer-term, optimistic tone.

Hill pointed out that DuPont does business worldwide and that while the ongoing debate about the RFS was worth paying attention to, it had little bearing on the global interest in the technology once proven.

Finishing with the enthusiastic, hopeful tone he started the panel with, Standlee eyed the coming EPA decision with optimism and said, “I have a high degree of faith that the EPA will improve the numbers in their final ruling.”

Wherever the EPA sets the numbers for required volumes of cellulosic ethanol remains to be seen. In spite of this uncertainty, the gallons are coming and the proponents arguing for continuation of the RFS will no longer have to talk about cellulosic ethanol in the future tense.