Combining experience, capital, vision

A new partnership strengthens the Iowa cellulosic project

A new partnership is pressing forward with POET’s long-standing goal of turning cellulosic biomass into ethanol in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

In January, Sioux Falls-based POET and Royal DSM of the Netherlands formed a joint venture to complete Project LIBERTY. Under the agreement, the project will now be led by POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels.

The joint venture announcement just preceded the formal start of vertical construction on the site, which occurred at a ceremony on March 13. The steel-and-concrete structure puts a visible face to a project more than 10 years in the making.

The new partnership adds the yeast and enzyme expertise of Royal DSM to POET’s experience in biorefining and years of work refining the process to produce cellulosic ethanol. What’s more, DSM brings with it new capital, and as a result, POET will forego the $105 million loan guarantee it was awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy in September 2011.

POET CEO Jeff Broin said the move was a natural step in the company’s drive to commercialize cellulosic ethanol.

“The partnership has set an ambitious goal: to make cellulosic bio-ethanol competitive with corn ethanol,” Broin said. “We believe that the joint venture positions us well to meet our cellulosic ethanol goals.”

DSM Chief Executive Officer Feike Sijbesma said the partnership is a great example of how expertise can be combined in pursuit of a common goal.

“This cooperation is a milestone in realizing DSM’s strategy,” he said. “By leveraging the unique opportunities in life sciences and materials sciences we can contribute our heritage of over a century in both biotechnology and chemistry to this joint venture with a biofuels leader.”

Project LIBERTY is scheduled to come online in 2013 with an initial capacity of 20 million gallons. It is expected to later grow to about 25 million gallons. At the groundbreaking ceremony in March, DSM and POET officials were joined by Iowa leaders including Gov. Terry Branstad and officials with the Department of Energy to commemorate the milestone.

“This project represents an excellent example of a successful public/private sector partnership, of the important technical breakthroughs that can be achieved by the private sector with public support,” says Brian Duff, Chief Engineer for the Office of the Biomass Program for DOE.

Branstad noted Iowa’s long-time support for ethanol, hearkening back to the days when it was called “gasohol.” Cellulosic ethanol represents a new opportunity for the state, he said.

“This is a very exciting day for Iowa, for Emmetsburg, and for POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels as we break ground for this cellulosic ethanol plant right here in Emmetsburg,” Branstad says.

Project LIBERTY Director Jim Sturdevant said the local farmers have been an important part of getting the project to this stage. POET has worked with farmers, agricultural equipment manufacturers, soil researchers and others who have spent time and energy determining responsible biomass harvesting techniques. Farmers around Emmetsburg harvested more than 110,000 dry tons of biomass over the past two years.

“POET team members from many POET companies, plus many external partners, have been working together on Project LIBERTY for over five years,” Sturdevant said. “POET and DSM researchers have independently been testing cellulosic ethanol technologies for over a decade, and now we merge our forces. LIBERTY is an example of great teamwork.”

All of this work is being done in part because of the potential cellulosic ethanol holds for agriculture. Farmers are excited by the possibility of a new source of income from something that is already being grown. General research and work done by Iowa State University in Emmetsburg has indicated that taking some of the leaves, stalks, cobs and husks from fields is consistent with good farm management practices.

“For farmers it would mean a new revenue source from material that is already available: corn crop residue,” Sturdevant said. “The biomass can be collected and delivered with readily available equipment. We have learned a tremendous amount from doing.”

In that regard, POET has been producing cellulosic ethanol at its pilot – and original – plant in Scotland, S.D., since 2008. That work has proved crucial in designing a commercial-scale plant.

The job potential is another exciting aspect of the project. The plant is expected to provide about 40 direct biorefinery jobs, 200 construction jobs, dozens of biomass logistics jobs, dozens of agriculture equipment jobs and many indirect jobs in the region.

Beyond Project LIBERTY there is also exciting potential.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard projects 7.8 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol coming from corn crop residue by 2022. To meet the EPA’s RFS volume requirement of 16 billion gallons a year of cellulosic ethanol, it will take 350 to 400 cellulosic ethanol plants coming online, and POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels wants to be a big part of that effort through licensing its proprietary technology to other ethanol producers. An early target for this technology roll-out would be other POET plants.

The U.S. Department of Energy sees about 1 billion tons of available biomass for future plants to tap into in renewable energy production. POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels hopes to be able to tap into that through future expansions.

“We have the raw material to make it happen,” Broin said.

Sijbesma is optimistic about the possibilities. “This partnership is an exciting opportunity. Together we will work to unlock new sources for renewable fuel.”



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