Project Liberty overcomes preprocessing bottlenecks

By Erin Voegele | October 24, 2017

Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels has overcome bottlenecks associated with the feedstock pretreatment process and is now focused on downstream processing at Project Liberty, its 20 MMgy cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsberg, Iowa.

Matt Merritt, director of public relations at Poet LLC, said the company is excited about advancements made at Project Liberty this year. “2017 has really been a banner year for Poet-DSM with progress made at the facility,” he said, adding that progress made this year is lightyears beyond what the joint venture has accomplished during the previous couple of years.

According to Merritt, delays associated with the pretreatment phase are one of the biggest technical hold-ups cellulosic ethanol projects have faced. The biomass feedstock must be preprocessed to release the cellulosic sugars that enzymes and yeast convert into ethanol. Challenges have been associated with getting the feedstock material to move consistently and fluidly through the preteatment process.

“That [problem] is what has held up not just Poet-DSM, but I think pretty much everyone in the field,” Merritt said. “We overcame that challenge this summer and pretreatment is no longer a bottleneck for us. Right now we are running at about 80 percent uptime on the pretreatment side that that is enabled us to direct our attention to some of the downstream processes…so we can really get that plant rolling.”

Progress made at Project Liberty means the joint venture expects to begin licensing efforts soon. Merritt said the licensing focuses on collocating cellulosic production at existing starch ethanol plants. However, there is also potential for cellulosic plants to be collocated at other sites, such as power plants. Merritt said one of the most important things is to have a facility that can use the renewable energy coproduct coming out of the cellulosic process. He also noted that Poet’s 27 corn ethanol plants are potential licensing partners for the Poet-DSM technology.

Poet-DSM celebrated the grand opening of Project Liberty in September 2014. In February 2017, the joint venture announced plans to build an onsite enzyme manufacturing facility adjacent to the cellulosic ethanol plant.

Regarding development of the enzyme facility, Merritt noted that dirt work on the site is underway. “We are going to be starting the vertical construction on that facility soon,” he said.

Merritt also spoke briefly about political and regulatory challenges facing the Renewable Fuel Standard and cellulosic biofuels industry. “Some of the changes that are being considered by the EPA—if they are to go through—would be harmful to the industry, to cellulosic biofuels,” he said, noting those changes would slow efforts to expand cellulosic production, at least in the U.S. “We’re hopeful that the Trump administration will come through for us,” he added.

Poet CEO Jeff Broin also recently spoke out in defenses of the RFS. He commended a group of four Midwestern governors who sent a letter to President Trump Oct. 16 asking him to honor his repeated commitments to support rural America and the RFS. “As commodity prices and the rural economic outlook continues to decline, farmers, agriculture suppliers and biofuel producers are grateful for the support we have seen from governors across the Midwest,”Broin said. “Today’s letter from Governors Brownback, Daugaard, Greitens and Reynolds demonstrates their concern.” 

“Changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard would have far-reaching, devastating consequences to the entire nation, but the most immediate damage would be to the states that depend the most on agriculture and biofuels to grow their economy,” Broin added. “Instead of backtracking on the RFS, Washington should be looking for more ways to support farmers, reduce our dependence on imported oil and expand markets for American-made biofuels.”