Driving County Roads

An on line journal sharing my views. The content reflects my background as a rural person employed in agriculture and as a retired elected official of local government.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

CELLULOSIC ETHANOL - YOU SAY?

The “Food verses Fuel” critics keep heaping criticism on the corn farmers for using this food source for fuel. According to them we are supposed to use switchgrass and other carbohycrate sources to produce fuel. The corn farmer producers are not against using other products. They are, however, smart enough to know that until there is an alternative, corn is the most available, easiest to transport and there is enough of it to serve both needs. The food verses fuel people never seem to admit that their argument falls flat on its face because there are no ethanol plants in the United States that are equipped with the technology and equipment to make cellulosic ethanol.

Minnesota has been a leader in alternative fuels and most of the ethanol plants in the state are locally owned by area farmers. We have been a leader in the corn based ethanol and we MAY be the first state to have a plant using the cellulosic process. According to an article in the April-June edition of “AURI Ag Innovation News”, a feasibility study for such a plant is under way in Little Falls. Central Minnesota Ethanol Coop is the corn based plant already operating there and for them to expand, they would have to compete for corn from other existing plants. Michael Sparby, AURI project director said, “given their location at the northern end of Minnesota’s corn range, they have to be creative and innovative if they want to grow.” AURI is supporting technical and economic feasibility studies of the cullulosic facility.

The plant in Little Falls is working with Bell Independent Power Company and Toronto based SunOpta BioProcess, Inc. to jointly build, own and operate the plant. It is expected that this plant would be one of the first commercially-viable cellulosic plants in the world. SBI has 30 years experience and is making ethanol in Spain and working on a plant in China. The Little Falls plant would use SBI’s proprietary process for pretreatment, using heat and steam to partially hydrolyze lignocellulosic fibers so they can be fermented for ethanol. Residual lignin will be gasified to power both the new cellulosic facility and the existing ethanol plant. The cellulosic plant will use soft hardwoods such as poplar and aspen trees harvested in a 70 mile radius of Little Falls.

Because the green-cut trees contain about 50% moisture, the proposed process can capture it so no outside water is needed for fermentation. It may even be able to capture enough moisture to offset some of the corn-ethanol plant’s needs also. If the Central Minnesota Ethanol Coop decides to move forward with this new plant, it will take about 16 months to complete. end

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