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Iowa's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant opens in Emmetsburg

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EMMETSBURG, Iowa | With dignitaries including city officials, the governor of Iowa and a European monarch, more than 2,000 people watched Wednesday as baling wire was cut to signify the grand opening of the state's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant.

King Willem-Alexander, of the Netherlands, was not expected to take the stage during the opening ceremonies at the Poet-DSM plant in Emmetsburg but surprised organizers with his willingness to take part. His Majesty spoke briefly in praise of Royal DSM CEO Feike Sijbesma and his company’s efforts in enzyme research that make the process work.

The venture, dubbed Project Liberty, is a $250 million partnership between Royal DSM, a Dutch biotechnology company, and Poet, a Sioux Falls-based ethanol maker. It is expected to produce 20 million gallons of ethanol in its first full year of production from corn cobs, stalks, leaves and other plant residue left on fields as waste.

Poet founder Jeff Broin told the audience that the effort took 27 years to come to fruition after he bought a bankrupt ethanol plant in Scotland, S.D.

The state of Iowa invested about $20 million in the new plant for engineering and construction costs through tax credits and job training funds. The U.S. Department of Energy provided $100 million in grants over seven years.

Assuming continued federal support with its renewable fuels program and other variables, Broin said Poet-DSM has the potential to see sales of about $250 million from bioethanol and licensing by the year 2020.

Sijbesma said licensing and continued government support were the keys to rapid growth, although he declined to say what companies or nations Poet-DSM might license its process to.

Sijbesma noted that the name Project Liberty was appropriate, as renewable fuels would build freedom from fossil fuels.

Poet-DSM Operations Engineer Beau Schmaltz, of Sioux Falls, said the refinery has been accumulating plant biomass for testing for several years but that the first production was just about a month ago. "And it worked."

Using cellulosic material from field residue, known as corn stover, provides a lower-cost alternative to making ethanol from corn kernels. In addition, it brings the process closer to using the entire plant product, making a nearly 100 percent renewable product, as even the by-products of distillation will be reused in another form.

Poet owns 27 ethanol plants, seven of which are in Iowa, including a traditional corn ethanol plant at the same site as the new cellulosic refinery.

Bancroft, Iowa, farmer Mark Bolling has been selling biomass from about 240 acres to Poet-DSM for about a year. “They bring three or four balers in and take the bales when they need them. It reduces the residue and it’s used to produce ethanol,” he said. “When it’s corn on corn, you want that trash removed anyway. You like your fields a little darker in the spring for putting corn back in.”

Farmers are paid $65 to $75 per dry ton. The plant will use 770 tons of biomass daily.

Michael Knotek, U.S. Department of Energy undersecretary for science and energy, said the nation needs another 1,000 plants like the Emmetsburg facility to be built within the next 25 years.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he would be making an announcement Thursday in Nevada “that will make Jeff Broin look like a true visionary.” That announcement will involve federal funding to aid a project that is designed to use municipal waste to produce jet fuel.

Vilsack is scheduled to speak Thursday at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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