A broader push toward sustainability

POET adds to its Ingreenuity goals with a new focus on greenhouse gasses and bio-based products.

Fossil fuels are so 20th Century.

The folks at Sioux Falls-based POET know it, and they’ve come up with a sustainable solution to fuel America’s motor fuels market and created several bio-based products that will further help wean the Americans off their dependence of petroleum-based goods.

Innovators lead, and at POET officials recently announced the second phase of a four-goal initiative called “Ingreenuity.” For more than two decades, company officials have been relentless on developing technologies that make the production of ethanol more efficient. Ingreenuity builds on that history, and further lessens the environmental impact of producing the country’s true renewable fuel.

“Long-term, corn will become the oil of the future,” POET Chief Executive Officer and Founder Jeff Broin said in a 2009 interview. “I don’t think people understand yet, that you can get everything from a corn plant that you can get from a barrel of oil − with the exception that it is renewable.”

Commitment to the environment grows

Broin is so confident in the company and its people that Ingreenuity was born. In 2010, when Broin introduced Ingreenuity’s first goal – a pledge to cut water use in ethanol production by 1 billion gallons, or 22 percent, in its 27 plants by 2014 – it sent ripples of doubt through the industry.

But not at POET.

With new technologies in place, the company has already hit 77 percent of its Ingreenuity water goal.

And at the NASCAR Green Summit recently, Broin announced that POET will decrease the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of ethanol production by 10 percent this decade. POET also pledged to produce 500 million pounds of bio-based products by 2015.

The GHG reduction goal, when combined with the 10 percent reduction the company has achieved since 2005, would represent a 20 percent cut from 2005 levels by 2020.

“Since we started producing ethanol 23 years ago, we’ve cut our energy use by more than half,” Broin said. “In just the past five years, we’ve cut our greenhouse gas intensity by 10 percent. Now we’ve set a goal to reduce that even further – by another10 percent, I have confidence that our team will meet and even exceed it.”

Reducing water and greenhouse gasses will go a very long way in making ethanol the renewable energy star of the future. It’s part of POET’s plan to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Besides ethanol production, it’s all the other renewable products that can be made from the corn plant that has POET on the leading edge of the industry.

Those products – like corn oil and zein the company is already producing – would replace a variety of petroleum-based products.

“To reverse the damage that oil has done to our planet, we need more than renewable fuel,” Broin said. “Petroleum is pervasive in our lives, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are bio-based alternatives to everything that comes from a barrel of oil, and POET is rapidly moving to commercialize those alternatives.”

Broin’s announcement set out Ingreenuity’s second and third goal initiatives, and leaves increasing sustainable production practices as a final initiative.

“When we first started, we wanted goals that were attainable, but ones that pushed us as well,” said Nathan Schock, POET’s Director of Public Affairs & Corporate Social Responsibility. “I think it shows how serious we are in meeting every aspect of Ingreenuity.”

Continuing a downward trend in greenhouse gas emissions

Since its inception, POET has been producing ethanol with increased efficiency – with steady advances in production technology.  A prime example is POET’s patented BPX® process that converts starch to ethanol without heat, reducing energy needs by 10 to 15 percent.

The BPX process brought with it a revolution to the industry. In traditional corn-to-ethanol production, the corn is ground and mixed with water, then heated in a jet cooker. The resulting material is liquefied and used in a fermentation process where the starches are converted to sugars, and the sugars to alcohol.

BPX streamlines the process, eliminating the cooking and liquefaction steps.

“You have to remember, we got into this business when everybody else was getting out,” Schock said. “We took a bankrupt, inefficient plant and turned it into something better. That we build our own plants just goes to show you what we can really do. If we develop something at one plant, we can easily bolt it onto all the other plants. That’s what it takes to be successful – and what it takes to continue to lead.”

Combined with its patented processes, POET officials also look to cut out fossil fuels in the production of ethanol. Alternative fuels like waste-wood boilers, landfill gas and biogas made in anaerobic digestion boilers are starting to show up at POET plants across the Midwest.

Most promising could very well be anaerobic digestion. The idea is a simple one: Let bacteria eat waste products like corn stalks, leaves and cob, then siphon off the gas that’s produced.

That process is now part of the company’s pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Scotland, S.D. – and will become a vital part of its commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, called Project LIBERTY, in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

“Being more efficient is just part of what we want to do,” said Scott Weishaar, POET’s Vice President of Commercial Development. “Jeff uses a chart where he shows all the products that come from a barrel of oil, as well as everything that can be made from a corn plant. The difference being, the corn plant is a renewable source for us – and we’re always coming up with ways to do things that won’t interfere with the food supply, but also decrease our needs to use fossil fuels in the process.”

A significant reduction in the use of fossil fuels is expected as cellulosic ethanol technology is rolled out to existing POET plants. Project LIBERTY will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 111 percent compared to gasoline, Weishaar said, partly because it eliminates the use of natural gas at the adjacent corn ethanol plant. Bolting the LIBERTY technology onto other POET facilities has the potential to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of ethanol production significantly more than POET’s current goal.

“Basically, we separate out the cellulose to make ethanol,” Weishaar said. “The rest of the product goes into the anaerobic digester and is turned into biogas. We’re making our own fuel to make corn-based and cellulosic ethanol.”

Bio-based alternatives to fossil fuel products

And along with its ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the company also is banking on producing 500 million pounds of bio-based products by 2015. Products that include corn oil and zein the company is already producing.

POET calls its corn oil product Voilà, which was first rolled out at the company’s Hudson, S.D. plant and has since been installed in five additional plants with a rollout planned to other plants in the near future, Weishaar said.

“Right now, we’re looking at supplying corn oil for the biodiesel industry,” he said. “Not only is it high-quality corn oil, it is a consistent product, which is important to biodiesel producers. The best thing is we can test it at one plant and easily bring it online to all of our other plants in no time at all.”

POET now produces enough corn oil to make 12 million gallons per year of biodiesel.

Voilà also relies on the company’s BPX fermentation process. So as this “cold-cook” process does its magic, the corn oil that’s captured has a lower amount of free fatty acids.

“The corn kernel is an amazing thing,” Broin said. “As we continue research into more and more co-products, our ability to displace foreign oil continues to grow. By selling Voilà to biodiesel producers, we’re making energy from a byproduct of energy.”

Voilà is just one of POET’s growing list of products made at its facilities. In addition to ethanol, there’s Dakota Gold distillers grains, a sought-after, nutritious feed additive for beef, dairy, swine and poultry. POET also captures carbon dioxide at seven of its plants for sale to beverage producers.

Last year, the company unveiled Inviz, a zein product used to replace petroleum-based films and coatings.

Zein is the storage protein in corn kernels. It has a number of unique characteristics and functionalities which makes zein very valuable in diverse commercial applications.

Naturally-occurring zein is a natural film-forming polymer; it’s inherently resistant to grease and water penetration; it’s thermoplastic, meaning biodegradable plastics can be made from it; it’s non-allergenic, meaning it can be used in food products; and it’s classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a “Generally Recognized As Safe” product.

Before the petroleum market gained momentum, Weishaar said, there were 8 to 10 million pounds of natural zein being used commercially just a few decades ago.

Progress is already happening

When Broin launched Ingreenuity at its Sioux Falls-based headquarters in 2010, there were naysayers and head-shakers. But not at POET. The company announced it would squeeze water use at its 27 processing plants by a billion gallons − and reach that goal by 2014.

“We’ve had a 20 percent increase in ethanol yields since our inception, but we’re not done yet. We’re not satisfied,” Broin told employees at Ingreenuity’s launch. “This is how we’re going to define our sustainability as we go forward. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do – it’s the right thing for our planet, and it’s the right thing for future generations.”

Ingreenuity’s first goal would reduce POET’s water use per gallon of ethanol produced to 2.33 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced, a 22 percent reduction. When it started producing ethanol in 1987, Poet used 17 gallons of water to create 1 gallon of ethanol.

Conversely, at 42-gallon barrel of crude oil will yield 44.6 gallons of refined products – and that refining process takes 1,851 gallons of water, according to U.S. Department of Energy statistics.

“That will make us more water-efficient than our competitor, or the other option, gasoline,” Broin said.

Currently, POET plants have reduced water use by a total of 770 million gallons of water per year compared to 2010 levels, thanks to widespread installation of the company’s Total Water Recovery technology. The technology is now in 18 POET plants across the Midwest.

With the most recent startup of the system at POET Biorefining – Chancellor in South Dakota, POET is over halfway to its goal of saving 1 billion gallons of water annually by 2014, which would mean using 2.33 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced.

“With Ingreenuity, we’re looking at many different ways that we can have the least affect possible on our surroundings,” Broing said in a 2010 interview.

And that means POET will continue to look to the future, build on its successes – and always be cognizant that its people aren’t just producing the nation’s best and brightest renewable energy product, but they’re helping to save the planet.

And they’re helping to reduce all the problems brought on by years and years of dependence on dirty, dwindling fossil fuels.

“By no means are we even close to being done,” Schock said. “Ingreenuity is a starting point. We don’t plan on resting, ever.”



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