Industry addresses N.Y. Times article

By Kris Bevill | September 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted Oct. 2, 2008 at 3:33 p.m. CST

An Oct. 1 New York Times article previewing the latest biofuels article in the Oct. 3 issue of Science Magazine struck a chord with some members of the renewable fuels industry who are determined to correct what they view as misinformation before it spreads.

The New York Times article reports that the authors of a Science Magazine report on cellulosic ethanol "sounded a note of caution" about the fuel and suggest cellulosic ethanol could suffer from sustainability issues.

On Oct. 2, Poet LLC, one of the world's largest ethanol producers and soon to be one of the country's first cellulosic ethanol producers, held a conference call with reporters to discuss both the Science Magazine and New York Times articles and to set the record straight on cellulosic ethanol.

Dr. Bruce Dale, professor of chemical engineering and associate director of the office of biobased technologies at Michigan State University, has 30 years of experience with cellulosic ethanol research and offered his scientific expertise on the subject. He has read the Science Magazine article and personally knows several of the researchers who authored the article. Dale believes the New York Times inaccurately interpreted their report and chose to present their information in a negative light. "[The authors] are in fact highly supportive of ethanol," he said. "They just want to make sure we do it right."

According to Dale, all of the emerging cellulosic ethanol producers understand that sustainability is key to the fuel's success. They also realize that the current petroleum-based fuel supply is unsustainable and needs to be replaced, he said. "There is no perfect alternative," Dale said, adding that "cellulosic ethanol is much improved over gasoline. The status quo of our oil independence is not reasonable at all."

Dale also addressed the use of invasive plant species for cellulosic ethanol production as was mentioned in the New York Times article. He said that while miscanthus could be an invasive crop, genetic engineering could stabilize the traits that make it invasive, thus solving the issue. Other crops, such as switchgrass, are native to the Great Plains and parts of the Corn Belt, so the notion of that crop being "invasive" is not correct, Dale said.

Speaking on behalf of Poet was Dr. Mark Stowers, the company's vice president of research and development. "Companies like Poet and our colleagues in the cellulosic ethanol research are keenly aware of sustainability and the need for sustainability as we move forward," he said. Poet will use corn cobs as feedstock for its cellulosic ethanol facility. Stowers said the company's pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol production facility is nearly completed. The Emmetsburg, Iowa, facility is slated to produce 25 MMgy when fully operational. He said Poet has thoroughly researched the effects of removing corn cobs from fields for ethanol production and have determined that they are easily removed with little to no effects on soil conditions.

Dale expressed concern that negative information concerning the production of cellulosic ethanol, of which he felt the New York Times article is an example of, could "cool the investments" that are still very much needed to advance the production technology. However, Stowers recently spoken with other cellulosic ethanol producers that have received U.S. DOE grants, including Verenium Corp. and Range Fuels Inc., and while they are at different stages in the development process, all of the projects continue to move forward and some are well ahead of their initial projections. He expects continued investment in cellulosic ethanol projects from both the government and private sectors despite the nation's current economic crisis "because what we're talking about here is replacing foreign oil and replacing high-priced oil." Stowers is confident that people realize the cost of oil has contributed to the current economic situation and is an issue that needs to be resolved.