As the nation's dependence on foreign oil has grown, ethanol has emerged as a viable domestic alternative.
To further its development, Congress established renewable fuels standards requiring the production of 36 billion gallons by 2022. To satisfy the mandate, much of the ethanol needs to come from sources other than corn kernels.
Two high-profile U.S. companies have begun work on reaching the goal by making cellulosic ethanol using stalks, leaves and cobs from the corn plant.
DuPont, owner of Pioneer Hi-Bred and a national underwriter of Market to Market, is in the planning stages for a 25-million gallon biorefinery in Iowa under the name "Project Blackhawk."
And POET, the world's largest single-producer of home grown fuel is embracing this next-generation ethanol technology by converting "one man's trash into cellulosic treasure." David Miller explains.
According to ethanol proponents it will not be possible to meet the 36 billion gallon renewable fuels production mandate relying solely on corn-based ethanol. With that in mind, the energy bill specifies 16 billion gallons must come from advanced biofuels. Feedstocks for these advanced biofuels are expected to include municipal solid waste, wood chips, wheat straw, switchgrass and corn stover.
Leading the way to satisfy RFS2 is the world's largest single producer of ethanol - POET. Through Project Liberty, POET's advanced biofuels program, the ethanol giant plans to produce -- or assist others in the production of -- 3.5 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually by 2022.
Mike Roth, former Director of Biomass, POET: "It's a brand new industry within ethanol, which is relatively new, being about 20 years old. A very, we still call ethanol a very immature industry. There is still a lot to learn and a lot of efficiencies to be gained. And this is adding a whole new component to it that really changes the game."
To get the ball rolling, POET opened a cellulosic biofuels pilot plant at its Scotland, South Dakota facility in 2008. Producing just a few thousand gallons each year, POET Scotland has been a test bed for advanced biofuels development.
USDA research shows 1.3 billion dry tons of cellulosic biomass is currently available in the United States. According to POET, that's enough to produce more than one-third of the fuel used by American drivers.
After several million dollars in research and development, POET has begun work on its full-scale cellulosic plant in the northwestern Iowa town of Emmetsburg. Referred to as a "bolt-on" facility, the biomass plant will be located on the same grounds as the company's conventional starch plant. Ethanol production at the advanced biofuels operation is expected to begin in 2012.
POET plans to use more than 300,000 tons of corn stalks, cobs, and leaves to make 25 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually. This will increase the total output of the Emmetsburg facility to 75 million gallons per year.
Mike Roth, former Director of Biomass, POET: "We're trying to stay away from the lower stalk and any dirt the farmer may pick-up, we don't want that. Anything from the ear up, we'll take it."
Biogas released by Project Liberty's enzymatic process will be used to power both the biomass facility and the nearby starch plant. Byproducts from the anaerobic digesters are expected to be used as fuel and as a product to improve the physical properties of soil. According to POET, when operating at full capacity, ethanol produced at the Project Liberty plant will actually have a negative carbon footprint.
To gather the necessary material to feed the $250 million facility, Roth has enlisted the aid of area corn farmers to bale one-quarter of the stover normally left in the field. POET research shows this equals about one ton of material per acre. According to their studies, this keeps the soil from
Mike Roth, former Director of Biomass, POET: "The literature that we've reviewed says that on a given corn field you can take approximately 25 percent of the above ground residue and leave 75 percent on the ground for future years, for soil organic carbon, nutrient replacement, etcetera."
Roth had no problem finding 85 farmers to sign four-year contracts obligating them to collect, store and transport something that used to be considered a waste product. He actually was forced to turn producers away.
To encourage farmers to capitalize on these next generation fuels, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently unveiled the "Biomass Crop Assistance Program", or BCAP. The matching program will pay up to 75 percent of the cost to produce, store and transport the alternative feedstock.
Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA: "And I believe the need for energy security, a cleaner environment, and better economic opportunity in Rural America make the case for action now."
The idea was not lost on Myron Bruhn who grows corn on 1200 acres with his brother in northwest Iowa near the Emmetsburg plant. Bruhn sees the BCAP payments as a good incentive to get involved in the biofuels industry.
Myron Bruhn, Cylinder, Iowa: "It's an investment to buy all the equipment but there should be some return on the investment. We don't farm a lot and if you can put a little more in your pocket by the end of the year and it's progress."
Between the payments from POET and the reimbursements from BCAP, Bruhn says he can afford the $75,000 investment he's already made in a new baler and low-boy trailer for hauling the one-ton round bales to the plant. POET is paying Bruhn $45 per ton.
Twenty-five miles away, Dick Nelson is using experimental equipment supplied by POET to gather square bales.
Dick Nelson, Emmetsburg: "We've been cussin' the corn stalks for years because we have so much cover on the ground. Now we can take off a ton, or whatever, and it won't effect the erosion or anything. So we're really, it's a win-win proposition, I think."
For bale of biomass, POET is paying $65 per ton.
This first-pass collection has its advantages and disadvantages. For POET, the method puts less dirt into the bales. For the producer, more fuel is consumed while combining.
Nelson also likes the idea of BCAP helping him pay for new equipment.
Dick Nelson, Emmetsburg: "It's a great program. You know, they talk about grindin' up trees and switchgrass. Well, we got all kinds of cobs here so it's gonna work, I think. If they can make fuel out of it we can do it. I'm excited about it. Yup."
Since this story was first broadcast, farmers have begun delivering some of the corn stover bales to the Emmetsburg storage yard.
For POET, and the farmers gathering biomass, the dream remains the same, reducing America's dependence on foreign oil.
Mike Roth, former Director of Biomass, POET: "With the advent of cellulosic ethanol, not only from corn residue but from switchgrass and bagasse and other materials, we will get to the point where ethanol can replace the 60 percent of the petroleum that we currently import.And if we use 40 percent petroleum that we currently have domestically and then the other 60 percent is ethanol we are now energy independent."
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller