Early Risers

Following multiyear feedstock procurement campaigns and vast investments of capital, resources and time, America’s first big cellulosic ethanol plants are nearing startup. EPM examines the progress of the Abengoa, Poet-DSM and DuPont facilities.
By Chris Hanson | March 06, 2014

Early 1900s entrepreneur and business theorist Roger Babson said that people who wish to enjoy a good future should not waste the present. In that vein, the near-term prize of being first to market with large-scale cellulosic ethanol production belongs to the companies meeting plant construction milestones today.
In the advanced biofuels sphere, no U.S. cellulosic ethanol projects have been watched more closely than those being built by Abengoa Bioenergy, Poet-DSM Advanced Biofuels and DuPont Industrial Biosciences. Together, these facilities now rise from the landscape of American corn country like prairie lighthouses beaconing an industry looking for new light.

Abengoa’s 25 MMgy cellulosic plant in Hugoton, Kan., began its construction in mid-2011 and was one of the first big Midwest cellulosic ethanol facilities to begin its commissioning process this year. “We are just on the verge of a startup here,” Christopher Standlee, executive vice president of Abengoa Bioenergy told EPM in late January. “We started commissioning the boiler and electric cogeneration unit and sold our first power back to the grid on Dec. 27.”

Beginning last summer, Abengoa drove especially hard to complete the build. “Starting in about July, we had the big final push to get construction completed,” Standlee said, adding that more than 1,000 construction workers were on site from July through December. He said it was awe-inspiring to attend morning safety meetings and see the entire workforce assembled, donned in hardhats and reflective vests. “That’s a pretty massive undertaking.”

With primary construction complete, contractors were busy setting minor components, finishing up the electrical systems and—in the feedstock pretreatment and yeast propagation areas—completing panel instrumentation and controls, Standlee said.

The plant began moving through its second phase, initiating the whole startup scenario, at the end of January. While going through its "ramp-up and debugging" period at press time, Abengoa was preparing to begin initial production runs, according to Standlee.

For the most part, all major construction is complete, Standlee said. The next step for the facility is the commissioning process, which is expected to take some time. “I don’t think we’re going to finish our commissioning for a while,” he added. “It could very well take a period of months.”  He expected the process would start in the first quarter of the year, probably in February.

Another Q2 Start
More than 500 miles northeast of the Abengoa facility, Poet-DSM’s Project Liberty plant is standing tall amongst the prairie and farmland in Emmetsburg, Iowa. The 25 MMgy plant broke ground in early 2012 and is expected to be the second commercial-scale cellulosic plant to complete its construction and commissioning this year. Sitting adjacent to Poet’s corn ethanol plant, the facility has taken shape over the past two years and is now beginning to tower over the Emmetsburg skyline.

Since last year, the site has gone from having a few tanks and construction activities to resembling of a cellulosic plant, explained Steve Hartig, general manager of licensing at Poet-DSM. “When you’re in Emmetsburg, it kind of looms in the skyline,” he said. Photographs of the site confirmed recent progress. Fermentation and enzymatic hydrolysis tanks were in place, and construction was being completed on the biomass receiving area where feedstock pretreatment occurs. Other components unique to the biorefinery were also in place in late January, including an anaerobic digester that handles the liquid waste stream from the ethanol process.

As each project is finished, personnel begin the commissioning process on the unit, Hartig told EPM. The pretreatment machinery was being completed and undergoing some commissioning, such as powering up and functionality testing. The main hydrolysis and fermentation tanks were, for the most part, mechanically complete and had been filled with water to test the pumps and scan for leaks.

As February approached, crews were focusing on the substantial completion of the plant’s front-end pretreatment equipment, along with its solid fuel boiler and the anaerobic digester. The boiler and digester will utilize the liquid and solid waste streams to generate steam for both the cellulosic ethanol plant and the neighboring corn ethanol plant.

“Basically, the plant will be mechanically complete at about the end of [the first quarter of 2014], and we’ll be starting up in Q2,” Hartig said. “As we finish a piece of the plant, we start doing the testing and the work on that piece. So it’s kind of a rolling process.”

Nose to Grindstone 
More than a two-hour drive southeast from Emmetsburg, the DuPont cellulosic ethanol plant lays claim to the frosty, winter soil near Nevada, Iowa. The DuPont facility broke ground on a chilly November morning in 2012, and has moved through various construction stages since then. The plant, which is expected to be completed by midyear, will utilize 590,000 bales of corn stover each year to produce 30 MMgy of cellulosic ethanol.

Rather than sharing frequent updates on its construction progress, DuPont has played its cards relatively close to the vest, concentrating more on internal benchmarks than external communications. “I think the team is almost singly focused on getting this plant up and running in 2014 and meeting that milestone,” said Wendy Rose, global public affairs leader at DuPont. The company is working with its teams—Fagen and KBR—to start producing cellulosic ethanol once the last pieces of the project are finished, she added. “We’re pretty happy that construction is continuing on track, and we’re going to deliver this in 2014.”

As construction progresses, it certainly catches the attention of those passing though. “Folks that are in the area, they drive by and say, ‘Wow! This is incredible,’ because it is an enormous undertaking, and we have state-of-the-art technology going into this plant,” said Rosen.

The plant is still expected to finish construction in the fourth quarter of this year, Rosen told EPM. “This team is incredibly focused on hitting these marks because all of that plays right into our capital expenditures here,” she said. “We did a groundbreaking when we said we were going to do it, and we’ll see an opening when we said we would do it in 2014.”

Farmer Followings
One of the most daunting tasks in creating a cellulosic facility might not be so much the technology and equipment challenges, but the procurement of feedstock. “We’ve built numerous ethanol plants of our own and we know what the construction process is like,” Standlee said. “We know our technology works, we’re comfortable with our ability to handle the product once it’s there, but one of the biggest challenges is the massive amounts of feedstocks that you have to deal with.”

For the past four years, Abengoa had experts in Hugoton, negotiating and visiting with growers to develop a mutual understanding about how to be good stewards of the land and avoid overharvesting corn stover. “We certainly don’t want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building a facility and shoot ourselves in the foot by having a farmer find out he’s taking too much stover off his land and didn’t leave enough to stop erosion and (needed to) leave some of the nitrogen and nutrients back in the soil,” Standlee said.

In addition to the summer construction push, Abengoa’s other milestone was being able to harvest more than 100,000 tons of stover by the end of November. “As you imagine, that is a massive amount of feedstock that required a lot of coordination to get it off the land and into some sort of storage. We’re very proud of that milestone,” Standlee said. Abengoa’s plant is able to operate on less than 15 percent of the available corn stover within a 50-mile radius, which allows the facility to exist in a noncaptive market situation, he added.

For Poet-DSM and DuPont, feedstock procurement has also been a massive, multiyear undertaking. A group called Poet Biomass has worked for Poet-DSM’s outreach the past seven years to develop the stover collection procedures and has been stepping up its efforts each year to collect additional biomass, Hartig said. “This year, we have about 200 farmers under contract to supply biomass and we’ve harvested about 100,000 tons of biomass,” he explainied. “That’s enough to get us really up and running through the next harvest. It’s going well, but it’s taken a lot of time because it’s a new crop.”

Poet-DSM has established multiple lanes of outreach to local farmers in order to secure its corn stover. In addition to brochures and informational videos for farmers dropping off corn at the neighboring ethanol plant, the company has worked with university researchers to study corn stover harvesting and manages booths at local county fairs to meet growers and local residents. “It’s a lot of different outreach, teaching and talking,” Hartig said.

Leveraging its existing grower relationships through Pioneer, DuPont also had a successful year securing corn stover for its cellulosic ethanol plant, with more than 200 farmers participating in its procurement process. “This is our fourth harvest and we have had incredible responses year over year,” Rosen said. “The best thing I can say about it is that we practically have a 100 percent return rate on folks that have participated the year before.”

DuPont is on track to have enough feedstock supply once the plant opens. “When we license this technology, a lot of potential licensees and customers will feel really solid about our expertise in the supply chain piece,” Rosen said. “That is a very complicated piece in this whole puzzle, which is figuring how to build a sustainable supply chain to fuel a plant that is going to be producing 30 million gallons of fuel per year. It’s a big deal.”

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]