Biofuels DuPont builds Iowa cellulosic biofuel plant

Published on December 5th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


500 Farmers Recruited For Gigantic Iowa Biofuel Plant

December 5th, 2012 by  

DuPont is building one of the world’s largest cellulosic biofuel plants in Nevada, Iowa; and it’s going to take a lot of corn stover to keep this baby humming, to the tune of 30 million gallons of ethanol per year. Corn stover is the leaves, stems, and anything else left over from harvesting the edible part of the corn harvest. The facility won’t be up and running until mid-2014, but DuPont is already looking ahead to contracting with more than 500 farmers to keep the stover coming. Aside from providing some extra income, the project could also help local farmers resolve some sticky crop management issues.

DuPont builds Iowa cellulosic biofuel plant

Corn Stover Means More than Biofuel

As a next-generation biofuel feedstock, corn stover fills multiple roles. First and foremost it piggybacks on a food crop, so at least theoretically it crowds out zero acres of land for human or animal feed.

Secondly, the use of corn stover as a feedstock can help farmers achieve more efficient crop management.

According to DuPont, corn stover is a “major challenge” for many corn farmers, because it can harbor pests, contribute to nitrogen depletion, and interfere with the next planting.

Generally, leaving some residue after harvest is good for soil preservation, but too much of a good thing can be a headache.

The new facility will collect about 375,000 dry tons of stover annually, from about 190,000 acres in a radius of 30 miles from Nevada (Nevada, Iowa that is).


Taking Iowa Biofuel to the Next Level

Cellulosic biofuel is the dream that biofuel researchers have been chasing for a generation. In breadbasket states like Iowa, it means a second life for harvest leftovers. In other states, you could see marginal lands planted with perennial biofuel crops like shrub willow and poplar trees.

The challenge is to find a cost-effective way of breaking down the tough cell walls to get at the sugary goodness inside.

For DuPont, that involved building a ten-year project culminating in a pilot plant in Tennessee to shake down the process. That experiment has proved so promising that the capacity of the new facility exceeds the original estimates.

We Built This!

You can mark down James C. Collins, the president of DuPont Industrial Biosciences, as another corporate leader who recognizes the value of partnering private enterprise with public funds to benefit the general welfare. At the groundbreaking, Collins said:

“And we didn’t get to this point alone. We’ve built an incredible partnership with the state of Iowa, Iowa State University, entrepreneurial growers and a whole host of partners around the country who share our vision of making renewable fuels a commercial reality.”

It’s pretty clear that Collins is not in agreement with certain U.S. legislators who have been heard to complain about the government picking energy “winners and losers.” It stands to reason that the government’s job is to set policy (why else have a government?), which by nature involves making informed choices.

For the Iowa state government, this is one choice that preserves farmland, provides additional income to local farmers, creates new jobs (DuPont estimates 60 full-time jobs at the plant and 150 seasonal jobs at harvest time), and contributes to the domestic fuel supply with renewable alternative to petroleum.

Not a bad pick.

Image: Courtesy of DuPont

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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  • Bob_Wallace

    NPR did an interesting story on biofuel this morning. The bottom line – it won’t solve our problem.

    “Robertson and his colleagues surveyed the Midwest acre by acre and identified 27 million acres of marginal farmland where these plants could grow, and where the acreage falls into a compact enough area that someone might want to build a refinery to produce biofuels.

    The 27 million acres identified in the latest study would provide less than 0.5 percent of our national energy demand, he says. And the more we try to expand biofuels, the more we risk displacing crops for food, or chopping down forests, which store a huge amount of carbon.

    Searchinger says Europe has recently recognized those potential hazards and is scaling back its biofuels ambitions.”

    That doesn’t even start to cover our need for airplane fuel.

    • Have an interesting short interview with the director of NREL coming — on the topic of algae biofuels.

  • Will Poundstone

    30 million huh? Just 133,970,000,000 to go

  • Goodbye future soil. Hello wasteland.

    • Matthew, what do you think happens to the stover now? It gets burned or taken to a nearby landfill and covered with gravel. Only some of it can be returned to the soil as too much nitrogen fixing occurs as the plant material breaks down.

      The is even more true in Brazil where millions of acres of sugar cane leaves, lower stem (from the 2-foot-high mark and down to the roots) and the roots themselves are burned, creating huge clouds of black and grey smoke and soot.

      Instead of just burning it and creating a smoky mess, why not get a transportation use out of it at every crop AND process it and burn it in a much cleaner fashion.

      Did you know the Boeing biofuel testing program SBRTP summary states that biofuels are easier on jet engines and produce far less CO2 than conventionally-sourced fuels?

      “The Bio-SPK fuel blends used in the test flights have all either met or exceeded the performance specifications for jet fuel.For example, the Bio-SPK fuel blends demonstrated higher energy density per unit mass than typical jet fuel, enabling airplanes to travel farther using less fuel. For all of the test flights, the blended biofuel displayed no adverse effects on any of the aircraft systems.”

      Cheers, JBS

      • Bob_Wallace

        Are you sure about that? I’ve never seen stover removed. I can’t think why you would. The ears are removed in the field in every operation I’ve see (or done).

        If possible cattle are turned in and allowed to graze off what they want, but I doubt that happens on the huge “corporate cornfields”. Then what’s left is disked in.

        Removing the stover reduces the amount of organic matter in the soil. It’s not going to fix nitrogen in any process I can think of. If it did the farmers would be very happy, that would cut down on their need to fertilize. Corn is a very heavy feeder.

        Remove most of the organic material and you really degrade the soil. It becomes compact and does not easily absorb water. It also loses a lot of the beneficial microbial activity.

        Maybe you’re talking only about the cob and other residue that does travel out of the field?

        And cane. Haven’t had anything to do with cane in 40 years. And even then we just chopped stalk, leaves and all for silage. But I do recall when cane was harvested by hand for sugar that the fields were burned before harvest. Burning got rid of the razor sharp leaves so that the workers didn’t get all cut up as they chopped and loaded the stalks.

        I’m thinking burning off fields is becoming less common these days. It certainly happens no more in the Ca rice fields. Stubble and whatever is disked in and left to build the soil as ‘no till’ farming becomes the standard.

      • Lobbyist

        • Bob_Wallace

          As in someone who lobs?

      • chas

        Definitely not. Corn “stover”, as they call it, is never burned or hauled to a land fill. Not in Iowa anyway. You know !@#$ about soil and agriculture.

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