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First Commercial-Scale Biofuel Facility Opens in US

The first commercial-scale biofuel plant in the United States is now open and will eventually produce more than 25 million gallons of fuel a year from corn waste.

Project LIBERTY converts baled corn cobs, leaves, husk and stalk into renewable fuel. The $272 million plant, located in Emmetsburg, Iowa, has officially started up, processing its first batch of biomass into cellulosic ethanol and is moving forward toward continuous operation. At full capacity, the facility will convert 770 tons of biomass per day to produce ethanol at a rate of 20 million gallons per year, later ramping up to 25 million gallons per year.

Project Liberty is a joint venture between biofuel company POET and DSM. In other parts of the world, the development of cellulosic ethanol is expected to be boosted as POET-DSM’s Liberty process and technology to effectively convert agricultural residue using a proprietary cocktail of enzymes and yeast becomes available via licensing.

The Departments of Energy and Agriculture and the State of Iowa have been important partners in bringing this technology to commercial scale. The DOE has awarded $100 million in grants to support the costs of engineering and construction, as well as biomass collection and infrastructure. The State of Iowa has taken a lead role in helping make Project LIBERTY a reality by contributing $20 million in grants for capital costs and feedstock logistics. USDA invested $2.6 million to support the delivery of more than 58,000 dry tons of corn crop residue, helping establish the feedstock logistics network.

As the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility in the US, the facility marks a huge step forward in the wider adoption of biofuels, both in North America and elsewhere. It also is a victory for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which prompted increased investment into advanced biofuels that accelerated development of this new technology. The RFS is a critical tool in moving the U.S. beyond 10 percent ethanol use to allow this new technology to expand to other parts of the country. Achieving this has been difficult due to scaling issues with biofuel production, which is why the Environmental Protection Agency backed away from its previously mandated targets for U.S. biofuel production by relaxing the proposed levels of ethanol use outlined in RFS, to address the “E10 blend wall.”

Many are beginning to view algae as a better alternative to corn for biofuel production, primarily because it does not interfere with agriculture prices. However, algae also suffers from scaling issues. Nevada-based Algae Systems recently announced it has developed a way to make algae-based biofuel profitable by transforming raw sewage into fuel and clean drinking water. The company has a pilot plant in Alabama that can profitably produces diesel fuel from algae by simultaneously making clean water from municipal sewage, utilizing the carbon-heavy residue as fertilizer and generating valuable credits for advanced biofuels.

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