EMMETSBURG, Iowa — After years of being on the drawing board, the first commercial cellulosic ethanol plants are scheduled to start operation next year.
Instead of using kernels of corn, they'll make the fuel from "biomass" — corn stalks, wood chips and other low-value plant material.
But just as the process is set to become a reality, some question whether it can fuel a viable business without considerable government support.
One of the first cellulosic ethanol plants is nearing completion just 30 miles south of the Minnesota border in northwest Iowa, where more than 300 construction workers are building a facility for POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels.
"We're going to be running 770 tons of biomass through this facility every day," said Matt Merritt, public relations director for the company, headquartered in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Much of the biomass from area farms already is stored near the plant in huge piles, ready to be turned into ethanol. It largely consists of 6-foot-high round bales of corn stalks, husks and cobs. Merritt said the operation will extract sugar from the plant material and then ferment the sugar into ethanol.
For more than a decade, the company has been working on making cellulosic ethanol for commercial purposes. Since 2008, POET has produced ethanol at a pilot cellulosic plant, and last year it formed a partnership with DSM, a Dutch conglomerate.
"DSM brings to the table, a lot of money for one thing — $150 million into the project," Merritt said.
The plant in Emmetsburg is right next to a POET corn ethanol facility that has been operating for nine years. In the future the company may add cellulosic operations to its other ethanol plants, which include four in Minnesota, Merritt said. One of those is in Lake Crystal.
Elsewhere in the United States, at least two other companies — Abengoa in Kansas and DuPont in Iowa — also have cellulosic plants scheduled to open in 2014. But while it looks like a break-through year for the innovative fuel, there's still plenty of potential trouble ahead.