New crops could fuel new wave of ethanol

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Tucson, Ariz. - For five years or more, proponents have said the promise of making ethanol from biomass crops such as switchgrass and hybrid trees was just around the corner.

That corner has yet to be reached, but last week it seemed a little bit closer when cellulosic ethanol producers and allied businesses spoke to the National Ethanol Conference.

Robert Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, host of the conference, said cellulosic ethanol will revolutionize the industry.

"Five years from now, the ethanol industry will be unrecognizable from what it is today, because of cellulosic ethanol," Dinneen said.

Almost all of the nearly 5 billion gallons of ethanol produced in the United States last year was made from corn kernels, with Iowa the No. 1 producer of the fuel. But there are limits to what the grain can do to meet the nation's renewable fuel needs, the 2,000 attendees at this year's ethanol conference were told.

That's why crops other than corn need to be developed so the world of cellulosic ethanol can begin, presenters said.

Anna Rath, director of business development at Ceres, a developer of energy crops for cellulosic production, said dedicated energy crops like switchgrass, a prairie grass native to Iowa, must be processed to meet President Bush's goal of producing 35 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2017.

Using dedicated energy crops produced expressly for ethanol production is a more reasonable approach to meeting the needs of expanded renewable fuel production than using crop residues from corn and wheat, she said.

Removing an excessive amount of wheat straw and cornstalks, leaves and cobs after harvesting the crops is not a good soil stewardship practice because a certain amount of plant residues need to be left in the fields, Rath said.

Also, switchgrass and other dedicated energy crops have a higher density of energy than crop residues, she said, so more ethanol can be produced from fewer acres.

Rath said Ceres, which is based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is developing switchgrass with superior characteristics. Their work, she said, is much like the work done by early corn-breeding pioneers. They developed hybrid corn and, later, added transgenic traits that have boosted yields from 30-bushels-an-acre 70 years ago to 200-bushels-an acre today.

Dedicated energy crops need to be improved, as corn was, for higher yields, more disease and pest resistance and other characteristics that will mean better crop stands on more marginal lands.

"We're just at the start of developing dedicated energy crops," Rath said.

Getting farmers to grow new crops, developing harvesting equipment and delivering bulky biomass crops to the plant all must be dealt with before cellulosic production can become a commercial reality, she said.

But the three biggest challenges for dedicated energy crops remain "yield, yield and yield," Rath said.

Other companies are planning to use crop waste in their cellulosic plants, conference presenters said.

Mike Muston, executive vice president for Broin Cos., said cellulose from crop residues has the potential to be turned into billions of gallons of ethanol.

Broin, which has headquarters in Sioux Falls, S.D., reported last year that its plant in Emmetsburg will be the first in the nation to make ethanol from corn stover, in addition to the ethanol it produces from corn kernels.

The Emmetsburg plant makes 50 million gallons of ethanol. After the expansion of its corn ethanol capacity and the addition of cellulosic production, the plant will make 125 million gallons a year.

Broin is working with Iowa State University and Deere & Co. in researching harvesting techniques for efficiently collecting stover.

Iogen Corp., a company based in Ottawa, Ontario, wants to break ground near Shelley, Idaho, for a plant that will use wheat straw to make ethanol, said Jeff Passmore, executive vice president at Iogen.

The company has a demonstration plant in Canada making ethanol from wheat straw, he said, but wants to build in the United States because it has the best available supply of biomass in the world.

Idaho, he said, has a ready supply of wheat straw and Iogen has 320 farmers to supply the feedstock for the company's ethanol plant.

Iogen wants to break ground on the plant site in the fall but can't until a U.S. government loan guarantee comes through, he said.

Gerson Santos-Leon, executive vice president of Abengoa Bioenergy R&D Inc., said his company will open a pilot cellulosic ethanol plant in York, Neb., in May.

Abengoa is developing a commercial-size cellulosic ethanol plant in Kansas that, it hopes, will qualify for a Department of Energy grant.

The company also is opening a plant in Spain this year that will convert wheat straw into ethanol.

Celunol President Carlos Riva said the Cambridge, Mass.-company has a pilot cellulosic plant in Jennings, La., and is building a demonstration plant there that it hopes to have up and running by the fourth quarter this year, he said.

As its cellulosic feedstock, Celunol will use sugar cane residues called bagasse that are left over from processing.

Brazil, the second-largest ethanol producer behind the United States, uses bagasse for its ethanol production.

Celunol plans to use its demonstration plant to train plant operators, perfect its continuous ethanol production methods and to show lenders that it can run a commercial-sized plant that will make 25 million gallons of ethanol a year.

Construction of that 25 million-gallon plant could begin in the first or second quarter of 2008, Riva said.

Last week, Celunol merged with Diversa Corp. of San Diego in a deal estimated to be worth $155 million.

The merger means Diversa's enzymes can be used to more efficiently turn cellulose into sugars for ethanol fermentation, Riva said.

Farm Editor Jerry Perkins can be reached at 515-284-8456 or jperkins@dmreg.com

Originally Published February 25, 2007 in the Des Moines Register