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Ethanol plants will come to fruition by 2014. Companies are working out the details of harvesting cellulose without harming the soil. The fight over the Renewable Fuel Standard has made investors wary of new tech.
Biomass sourcing and logistics, followed by technology and scale-up issues, have been two of the main stumbling blocks to getting cellulosic ethanol off the ground, says Christopher Standlee, executive vice president of institutional affairs at Abengoa Bioenergy.
As one of the largest international producers in the starch ethanol business, Abengoa, based in Seville, Spain, is accustomed to managing large volumes of feedstock. Its Hugoton staff has been working with area farmers over the last four years to contract the plant’s biomass needs for several years of production, Standlee says.
“Biomass collection and storage is not insurmountable, but it is hard work,” says Steve Hartig, general manager of licensing, POET-DSM. Another facet of biomass collection is learning how to do it sustainably. POET-DSM and DuPont Industrial Biosciences, or DIB, have been working with researchers from Iowa State University who have been monitoring how soil health is affected when corn stover is removed.
DuPont has been working with Iowa farmers for the last four harvests, and POET-DSM is in its seventh harvest working with growers. These companies have learned a great deal more about the amount of residue that can be removed without adversely affecting crop or soil quality.
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Getting a new industry up and running — from developing the technology to engineering the process to constructing facilities — is by no means an easy process, says Steve Mirshak, business director for cellulosic ethanol at DIB. In addition to the crop residue management considerations previously noted, there are various challenges in coordinating the harvest and transportation of biomass from the field to the cellulosic ethanol plant.
DIB is contracting primarily with aggregators (such as custom harvesters) to collect and transport biomass. “The number of equipment providers continues to grow, as does the commercial harvest of corn residues for a 30 million-gal.-per-year facility,” Mirshak says.
DIB’s cellulosic ethanol plant (co-located with corn plant Lincolnway Energy in Nevada, Iowa) requires the expertise of more than 200 equipment operators for a two-month period in the fall. “We are working to expand the pool of workers that are available for that period of time,” Mirshak notes.
“Investors and innovators have had to build a supply chain for feedstock while balancing supplier and buyer demands for value, quality, quantity and cost. We are working with farmers to encourage their participation in this exciting new opportunity,” Mirshak says.
He adds that the equipment industry will continue to expand and innovate with the growth of the cellulosic ethanol industry. “Several areas of growth opportunity exist, including consolidating harvest operations into fewer steps and bringing commercial-grade equipment, quality control and greater specialization to the stover harvest. We are seeing entrepreneurs and investors stepping into the gap now, and that’s encouraging.”
Another stumbling block has been the volatility of commodity prices over the last few years in both the corn and oil industries, says Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association.