Project Liberty, the first U.S. commercial-scale facility to make ethanol from cellulosic biomass, has begun operations in Emmetsburg, Iowa. The plant was built by a joint venture between the chemical maker DSM and the corn ethanol producer POET. At an opening ceremony last week, executives from the firms said cellulosic ethanol can no longer be derided as a “fantasy fuel.”
DSM and POET joined forces in 2012 after several years of independent work on technologies to make cellulosic ethanol. DSM was responsible for the enzyme cocktail that breaks down the cellulose component of corncobs, leaves, and stems into C5 and C6 sugars, as well as the yeasts that ferment the sugars into ethanol. POET led in plant engineering and materials handling.
In comments during the ceremony, DSM CEO Feike Sijbesma said he and POET founder Jeff Broin were told, “This will be impossible.” The road to a viable cellulosic ethanol industry has certainly been a long one: The U.S. Department of Energy funded what were promised to be cellulosic ethanol plants as far back as the mid-1990s, but those previous efforts never came to fruition.
Project Liberty produced its first gallons of ethanol last month and is slated to reach an output of 20 million gal per year by the end of 2014. “The dream, the vision, became reality today,” Sijbesma said.
The U.S. is not the first country to make cellulosic ethanol. In October 2013, Beta Renewables started a 20 million-gal facility in Crescentino, Italy. It produces ethanol from wheat straw and the energy crop Arundo donax with enzymes supplied by Novozymes.
Guido Ghisolfi, CEO of Beta Renewables, said he is happy that POET and DSM have joined the production club. “To be defined as an industry we can’t have just one guy with the technology, even if it works,” he said. “To be a technology that can be chosen by many, it has to be one that offers opportunity and choices.”
In the U.S., the Emmetsburg plant will soon have company: Spanish renewable energy firm Abengoa says its 25 million-gal plant in Hugoton, Kan., will begin production later this month. And DuPont’s 30 million-gal facility in Nevada, Iowa, is scheduled to come on-line by the end of the year. All players hope to license their technology to other firms.
It will take more time to show the world that cellulosic ethanol can be produced profitably, cautions Jim Lane, editor of Biofuels Digest. “But nothing will do more to de-risk this sector than seeing three giant concerns—Abengoa, DuPont, and POET-DSM—backing their technologies with their balance sheets,” he said.