The age of next-generation ethanol grew closer Friday as DuPont broke ground on a plant in central Iowa that may become the nation's largest when it opens in summer 2014.
The $200 million plant in the Story County community of Nevada is expected to produce 30 million gallons per year of ethanol from cornstalks and leaves. It's located next to Lincolnway Energy, a traditional ethanol plant that uses corn kernels as feedstock.
The two plants are expected to share some infrastructure, such as rail car-loading operations.
The DuPont plant may not be the first large commercial cellulosic ethanol plant to open in Iowa, but it is expected to have more capacity than the Project LIBERTY plant that POET-DSM Biofuels expects to open in Emmetsburg in late 2013. That plant will be able to produce about 20 million gallons year from a feedstock that also includes corn cobs.
The Spanish-owned Abengoa Bioenergy cellulosic ethanol plant in Hugoton, Kan., is the only current ethanol project under development that may approach 30 million gallons per year in capacity. It will use wheat straw as feedstock.
DuPont plans to contract with more than 500 local farmers to supply over 375,000 tons per year of corn residue from within a 30-mile radius of the plant. The work will require about 150 seasonal workers, while the plant itself will employ about 60-full time operations employees.
Federal policies mandating corn-based ethanol have become a political battleground in Washington, D.C., with opposition from livestock producers and food producers objecting to the higher grain prices that result from the use of corn for ethanol, as well as from petroleum interests opposed to competition from ethanol.
"It's very popular in D.C. right now to say there's no such thing as next-generation biofuels," said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.
With a company such as DuPont moving forward, he said, it's much harder for biofuel opponents to say next-generation fuels aren't viable.
Gov. Terry Branstad called the DuPont project "the next critical step in our cellulosic ethanol journey." He emphasized the sustainable nature of feedstock, and the jobs the project will create.
Friday's event included farmers who will sell their corn residue to DuPont to be made into ethanol. Corn grower Jim Hill said in prepared remarks that he's already seeing higher yields from leaving less residue in the field, although some is left to protect the soil from erosion.
With new corn hybrids capable of growing more plants on the same acreage, farmers say residue buildup can interfere with planting and harbor damaging insect larvae and other pests.
DuPont Industrial BioSciences President James Collins said the project is the culmination of more than a decade of development work aimed at making cellulosic ethanol a commercial reality.
"By leveraging DuPont Pioneer corn production expertise and designing an integrated technology platform, we've built an affordable and sustainable entry point into this new industry," Collins said.A small scale commercial ethanol plant developed from a first-generation ethanol plant near Blairstown also is in development. Fiberight Blairstown Operating LC plans to produce ethanol from cellulose fibers extracted from industrial and municipal waste.