Ethanol’s future is launching in Iowa

H elping fuel the nation’s vehicles while reducing America’s dependence on imported oil has been a major benefit of the ethanol industry.

Critics of corn-based ethanol production contend that expanding this industry much beyond present levels would require diverting from other important uses too much of the corn crop. That argument may be about to become moot.

Commercially viable production of cellulosic ethanol – using agricultural residue such as corncobs, leaves, husk and some stalk that passes through the combine during harvest instead of corn is on the verge of becoming a reality.

POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels LLC, headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will hold a grand opening Wednesday of the nation’s first commercial-scale cellulosic bio-ethanol plant, co-located with POET Biorefining in Emmetsburg. This POET-DSM undertaking is a collaborative venture of Netherlands-based Royal DSM and Sioux Falls-based POET. The initiative has been named Project LIBERTY.

The potential economic ramifications of being able to convert cellulosic biomass into ethanol are huge. That’s way the U.S. Department of Energy has helped support the costs of developing and bringing online the necessary technologies and infrastructure through nearly $100 million in grants. It’s also why the state of Iowa has provided financial assistance for the Emmetsburg project. It may well explain the decision of His Majesty Willem-Alexander, King of the Netherlands, to journey to the Hawkeye State to be part of the grand opening celebration.

According to information released by POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels, Project LIBERTY “will process 770 tons of corn cobs, leaves, husk and some stalk daily to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year.” That is expected to increase rapidly to 25 million gallons per year.

If production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass becomes widespread, the economic consequences will be tremendous. According to background material from POET-DSM, 1.3 billion tons of biomass is available in the United States that could be used to produce ethanol. Consequently, if Project LIBERTY proves a success, it could open the door for a massive increase in the ethanol industry.

That Emmetsburg is the focal point for such a potentially monumental development should be a source of pride to all Iowans.