On September 3, the country's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility opened its doors in Emmetsburg in northwest Iowa. On September 9, one of Iowa's smallest ethanol plants flipped the switch at its "bolt-on" cellulosic processing plant in Galva, also in northwest Iowa.
Rather than utilizing starch as in traditional corn ethanol, the cellulosic process makes use of cellulose from either the corn kernel itself or from corn stover, which is the stalk and leaves of the plant, to produce fuel.
Each year the Emmetsburg facility will produce about 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol, while the Quad County Corn Processors plant in Galva will produce about two million gallons.
Iowa Renewable Fuels Executive Director Monte Shaw says you've got to start somewhere.
"So that's a smaller scale for them, a couple of million gallons. On a bigger plant, you're still talking millions of gallons if not tens of millions of gallons. But if you apply that on top of the entire industry, you're talking about a couple of billion of gallons of ethanol." He says, "So it's not small potatoes. But I think that's what's fun and unique about this industry, is we've got DuPont's and Poet's doing things. We've also got Quad County corn processors right in there with them. And I guess, as an Iowa farm kid, I kinda like that."
Shaw says the plants here in Iowa are prepping the industry to spread around the nation.
"You know, we're going to be able to go into parts of the country that do not care one way or the other per say about ethanol because they don't have a plant. And all of a sudden they're going to have crop residues, they're going to have forest waste, and wood waste, from their industries to use, they're going to have dedicated energy crops that we can plant in some marginal lands, in maybe some of the dryer or hotter parts of the country, and they're going to have an interest in ethanol."
Shaw adds that a major benefit of cellulosic ethanol is that biomass besides corn stover can be converted into fuel, which he says means areas of the country not traditionally associated with ethanol may soon express an interest in producing it.