Cellulosic ethanol may play role in local biofuel production


Photo: Andrew Clawson/Iowa State Daily

Bobby Martens, assistant professor of supply chain management and management information systems, is researching the logistics of corn stover as biofuels.

Kelly Madsen

For the past decade, corn ethanol has predominated Midwest biofuel production. But with increased technology and interest, an additional ethanol — cellulosic ethanol — may also shape local farming.

The Renewable Fuels Standard, a program created by the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, has mandated 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel be created annually by 2022, with 16 billion gallons coming from cellulosic ethanol.

“The federal goals for biofuel production are so high, so in the foreseeable future, we will need to produce both corn ethanol and plan for cellulosic ethanol production,” said David Correll, graduate student in business administration.

Essentially, cellulosic ethanol utilizes the corn stover, corncobs and stalks, which are left over after the corn fruit is harvested. Cellulose ethanol also can utilize other forms of biomass, such as grasses or woody parts of plants.

“Using the corn stover allows for farmers to increase productivity and make the most of their crops,” said Bobby Martens, assistant professor of supply chain management and management information systems.

Currently, the Midwestern biofuel refining company POET has begun cellulosic biorefining at a pilot plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

In addition, DuPont plans to open a cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Nevada, Iowa, in 2013.

“There is a push to make cellulose ethanol happen,” Martens said. “Companies are investing in this idea, putting money and time and people into the idea and trying to make it happen.”

“It is hard to predict exactly how things will play out for Iowa farmers,” Correll said. “As long as land and community stewardships are part of the plan, I think that the emergence of another profitable biofuel sector makes this an exciting time to be an Iowan farmer.”

Martens said some individual farmers are entering into contracts to sell the corn stover off of their fields.

While cellulosic ethanol is currently thought to have potential in the biofuels industry, Martens warns that it is not necessarily a “get-rich-quick” industry.

“When you take the corn stover off the field, you are also taking nutrients out of the agricultural system,” Correll said. “That is both a business and environmental issue.”

Removing corn stover, which serves as natural fertilizer, can increase the need for farmers to add chemical fertilizers and synthetic minerals. This is not ideal because it is both costly and can be environmentally concerning, Correll said.

Corn stover also protects the soil from erosion and if it is completely removed for cellulosic ethanol, wind and rain can wash away rich Iowa soil, he added.

In addition to impacting farming, the new product also may place new demands on local transportation and infrastructure, Martens said.

“If we will be producing all this biomass, we need to also consider how we plan to move it off the fields and then to the refineries,” Martens said. “There will be increased need for storage facilities, rail cars, trucks and quality roads.”

Most farms and refining plants must use smaller county or township roads that are not originally intended for lots of heavy transportation, Martens said.

During the corn ethanol “boom” in 2005, Martens studied the need for industry leaders to reconsider investments in transportation equipment and infrastructure.

“During that time, corn ethanol plants were developed rather haphazardly,” he said. “Some small towns without the correct infrastructure for transporting truckloads of ethanol decided to build corn ethanol processing plants as a way to keep the town ‘alive’ and create more jobs.”

This essentially created some long-term problems with the transportation of ethanol in small towns, said Frank Dooley, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

“I don’t think that biomass will happen that fast,” Martens said. “A lot of companies have learned how to look long-term at infrastructure, which could make this additional market successful.”