Waste Not, Want Not: Turning Crop Residues Into Sustainable Fuel

Abengoa's new cellulosic ethanol facility is one of the first second-generation ethanol plants to come online in the U.S., writes Manuel Sánchez Ortega. A grand opening ceremony was held Oct. 17 in Hugoton, Kansas.
By Manuel Sánchez Ortega | October 17, 2014

The industry has predicted 2014 to be a pivotal year for second-generation ethanol in the United States, and recent industry momentum only confirms this prediction. Thanks to recent technological and policy advancements, many bioenergy companies are now moving away from first-generation fuel production, toward more advanced and sustainable second-generation technologies.

Less expensive and higher octane than equivalent petroleum fuels, ethanol has long been touted as a promising and environmentally friendly biofuel option with a low greenhouse gas output. There are limitations to how far the industry can go with purely starch-based ethanol, however. For this reason, Abengoa has spent the last 10 years perfecting its second-generation technology through the development of proprietary enzymes that extract sugars from nonstarch cellulosic materials. In this time, the company was able to vastly diversify potential feedstock options, dramatically increasing the efficiency and yield of the process.

One of the first second-generation ethanol plants to come online in the country, Abengoa’s new advanced biorefinery can be found nestled amongst the cornfields in southwest Kansas, about 20 miles from the Oklahoma border and only 50 miles from Colorado, where a massive expanse of gleaming stainless steel pipes and tanks erupt from a 400-acre tract of extremely flat land. Built by workers from the local area, the industrial compound includes 30,000 cubic yards of concrete that supports miles of industrial pipe and interconnecting control cables winding and twisting their way, connecting systems and tanks to produce 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually when running at full capacity. The plant’s cogeneration component allows it to utilize biomass solids from the ethanol conversion process to create 21 megawatts of electricity—enough to power itself and the local community.

Dry and fertile, surrounded by abundant farmland, Hugoton, Kansas, is the perfect place for Abengoa to cultivate a new technology that turns low-value agricultural crop residue—stalks, leaves and stems—into a renewable fuel source: cellulosic ethanol. The company also has extensive plans for future development and implementation of this proprietary technology utilizing many different agricultural residues as well as municipal solid waste.

As the United States, and countries around the globe, strive for energy security through affordable solutions that remove reliance on oil imports, they also aim to protect the environment and the health of future generations by investing in cleaner technologies with a lower carbon footprint. The realization of commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol is not only a milestone for the companies involved, but also the biofuels industry at large. The success of the Hugoton project will further demonstrate the viability of cellulosic ethanol as a commercial fuel source, creating a market opportunity for a mainstream cost-competitive alternative to petroleum.

Commercial cellulosic ethanol production also creates jobs that support the new infrastructure of a decarbonized economy, and can help revitalize hard-hit rural America. We can turn agricultural waste into extra income for local farmers and create cost-competitive, high-octane fuel. Harnessing this technology will provide a tremendous economic benefit to the local economies where the fuel is produced, while also simultaneously benefiting consumers through lower fuel costs.

The future of biofuels is a bright one, and as companies continually improve their technology processes and streamline production, cellulosic ethanol will continue to show great promise as a transformative solution, providing the cost competitive edge needed for widespread adoption.

Author: Manuel Sánchez Ortega
CEO, Abengoa
[email protected]