The solid sales performance many farm equipment dealers and manufacturers have experienced during the past 3 years has been driven in large part by the growing use of corn ethanol as a biofuel. Now, Poet LLC, the world’s largest producer of ethanol is giving the industry another “heads up” that the next major leap forward in the development of biofuels is on the horizon.
“Cellulosic ethanol technology is nearing commercial viability,” Mike Roth, Poet’s director of biomass, told Ag Equipment Intelligence in an exclusive interview.
The development of cellulosic ethanol is expected to drive another phase of ag machinery growth. As an economical biofuel, cellulosic ethanol will not only bring with it the need for additional, specially designed farm machinery, but it will utilize corn cobs and other ag residue that will provide farmers with an additional income stream.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory has estimated that there is more than a billion tons of biomass available that could be converted into 80-100 billion gallons of ethanol. Poet will pay $30-60 per ton of biomass, so the revenue opportunities for farmers are apparent. According to Roth, Poet is getting ready to launch Project Liberty, a 25-million gallon per year cellulosic ethanol plant that will be co-located adjacent to its Emmetsburg, Iowa, facility.
“That plant has been operating for 5 years producing ethanol from corn starch. We’re now at the stage of educating the farmers who are already bringing corn to the plant on how they can also bring corn cobs to the facility,” Roth says. Therein lies the opportunity for equipment builders and dealers.
Mounting Ag Residue
Poet’s Project Liberty is designed to produce cellulosic ethanol from corncobs, husks and leaves.
Roth estimates that harvesting 180 bushels of corn per acre results in approximately 4 tons of dry corn residue. Removing a maximum of 25% of residue will yield about 1 ton per acre of dry material for producing ethanol.
“We’re asking farmers to pick up no more than 1 ton per acre,” Roth says. “All of the work done so far indicates that this is the correct amount to ensure erosion control and that the nutrient supply is adequate for the soil.”
As corn yields continue to increase — Monsanto is projecting it will reach 300 bushels per acre by 2030 — the volume of field residue will also pile up.
With the technology in place and conversion costs increasingly competitive, Roth sees the next major challenge in extending production of cellulosic ethanol in gathering and transporting of the cellulosic feedstock. Specifically, Poet is looking at 3 sources of feedstock.
• Clean Cobs: These are loose corncobs that don’t hit the ground. “This will requires a cart that’s pulled behind the combine to collect all of the material coming off the combine and separates some of the chaff — leaves and husks — so we end up with a pretty clean corn cob,” Roth says.
• First-Pass Bales: This will require a baler that is pulled by the combine and it takes everything coming from the combine, bales it and drops it on the ground.
• Second-Pass Bales: Gathering this feedstock involves traditional baling. The combine chopper is turned off, and instead of spreading the corn residue out across the field; it would be laid down in windrows behind the combine. A conventional round or square baler then picks up the windrow.
Collecting the materials in one pass will require some special equipment, according to Roth.
“The equipment is still in development, but the farmer will probably need a larger combine with certain horsepower requirements. Some of the combine manufacturers are a little wary about the stress that pulling a cart or baler behind the combine will put on the braking and cooling systems, so development is ongoing,” he says.
For farmers without large combines, Roth says, second-pass baling could be appropriate. “Farmers with smaller acreages can also participate by using a standard baler and making another trip through the field.”
Just a Start
Roth says that Project Liberty is just the start in the long-term plan for producing cellulosic ethanol. “It’s 25 million gallons of ethanol that will use 300,000 tons of corncobs. But it is only the first one.
“We have very big plans to produce and license the technology for 3.5 billion gallons of cellulosic and high-tech biofuel,” he says.