Ethanol plant using corn stover in Iowa

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A full-scale cellulosic ethanol plant using corn stover feedstock should be in operation in central Iowa in less than two years. Groundbreaking for construction is planned for the second half of 2012, and DuPont through its Industrial Bioscience division leadership team has announced construction will take from 12 months to 18 months.

DuPont has announced the project with the confidence that this cellulosic ethanol plant will be the model for dozens more to be erected all across the Corn Belt within a short timeframe after this one proves itself.

Research into the corn stover quality, removal percentage from a field, harvesting method, storage system and impact on soil fertility and tilth has been underway for more than two years.

Plans and research were unveiled at a Pioneer media day at Johnston, Iowa, which I attended.

DuPont made its first investment in what became DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE) that has now been renamed simply DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol (DCE). Steve Mirshak, global business director of DCE, claimed the company is ahead of others doing research.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of technology development across the country. There are many, many companies investing in how to develop the technology for cellulosic ethanol. We are there today,” Mirshak said.

He noted that the company was able to get where it is at today because of successes with a pre-commercial technology development corn stover and switchgrass research plant in Tennessee capable of producing 250,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol in a year.

The construction of the 27.5 million gallon per year plant at Nevada, Iowa, comes with cooperation and synergy of Lincolnway Energy, a corn ethanol production operation, that sold DuPont the land for its plant and will be involved in energy and infrastructure sharing including rail shipping. The byproduct from the cellulosic plant will be lignin (part of the stalk structure material) and syrup, both of which will be burned for energy. 

“The combination of Pioneer and DuPont Industrial Bioscience and Iowa State University has been very, very important to understand the agronomical and sustainability impacts of stover removal. We have also seen a tremendous interest by producers in the area. We worked with about 50 growers in 2011, and we will expand that to about 150 growers in 2012,” Mirshak said.

Research in windrowing, baling, transporting, storing and grinding the stover has been part of the pre-construction research. The other big research relates to the amount of stover that can be removed and what that does favorably or negatively to a farmer’s soil.

In full operation, the new ethanol plant is expected to produce about 80 gallons of ethanol per ton of corn stover, and at typical corn stover removal rates that would be equal to about two tons of ethanol per corn acre. In general, removal of about 50 percent of the crop residue per corn acre is the number to use for calculations of how to gather enough stover.

The Nevada plant will require stover collected within a 30-mile radius of the plant and that radius could decrease in years ahead, depending on the hybrids planted.

“As we look into the future and corn yields continue to increase, the amount of corn stover available for cellulosic ethanol production will continue to increase. So, we see stover and corn residue as being a long-term important component for the generation of biofuels in the United States,” Mirshak said.

He said the faith in corn stover as a feedstock and the systems for collection, storing and obtaining it from farmers at a fair value will result in many more cellulosic ethanol plants being built. “We will license the technology broadly, and this is very important as we want to have many participants,” he said.

Mirshak highlighted considerable research that shows removal of a portion of corn residue is good for the land, even though a considerable number of farmers worry about negatively affecting soil fertility and soil organic matter. The DCE division has a director of residue management and an agronomics researcher manager on staff.

Research that Mirshak highlighted shows that excess stover removal allows for faster soil drying and warming in the spring, improved uniformity of seed placement that includes depth and soil contact, reduced disease pressure and reduced nitrogen tie-up. The claim is for higher corn yields with reduced nitrogen and tillage.

Mirshak further explained, “Sustainable stover harvest goals are focused on three critical areas—management of soil erosion, managing soil fertility and making sure that we sustain the organic matter. So, as we do this, we focus on a field by field basis to make sure that we have sustainable harvests. The frequency depends on the yields, the slope of the fields and production practices. We study the fields and compare it to our data and determine the appropriate amount of stover that can be removed from a field in a rotation. So, we will not remove stover from every field every year.”

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Larry Johnson    
Minnesota  |  March, 15, 2012 at 08:55 AM

It is difficult enough to get accurate information to the public with the misinformation of Big Oil and other opponents of ethanol, without the help incompetent reporters. A first grader would be able to immediately calculate that two gallons per corn acre is not feasible. How about two hundred gallons produced from 2.5 tons of stover per acre? Have a little interest and professional pride in your work.

Mark Bredehoeft    
Renville, Mn  |  March, 15, 2012 at 11:40 AM

I am the Research Agronomist for Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative. I would be interested in contact information (if you have it ) pertaining to Dupnt personnel involved in developement of the cornstover ethanol facility. Please send me any information you may have.

Mitch Lacher    
ND  |  March, 22, 2012 at 12:10 AM

I would like contact information for this corn stover ethanol plant in Iowa. I have done a fair amount of research on this plant but have never been able to find any contact information of any kind. If you could send me a contact number or email address that would be great.

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