DuPont’s Turn at Center Stage

In October, probiofuel dignitaries celebrated the grand opening of DuPont’s Nevada, Iowa, cellulosic ethanol plant, closing the first chapter of the industry’s second-generation build-out story.
By Tim Portz | December 21, 2015

On a crisp October morning under cloudless skies, William Feehery, president of DuPont Industrial Biosciences gestured to tanks and pipes sitting just beyond a tractor trailer filled with rectangular corn stover bales. “The ripple effect of what you see behind me will be felt all over the world,” he said, and thanked the audience for joining DuPont in the celebration of the opening of what is now the world’s largest cellulosic ethanol production facility.

The plant, built adjacent to an existing corn ethanol facility in Nevada, Iowa, serves as the tip of the spear for DuPont’s entry into the global advanced ethanol category. The facility joins earlier entries into the space from Poet-DSM and Abengoa, all competing in a race to commercialize an economically viable pathway for the conversion of cellulosic biomass materials into fuel ethanol. While DuPont’s facility will use the same corn stover feedstock as the other plants, it will rely on a proprietary strain of the enzyme Zymomonas mobilis to convert these lignocellulosic materials into ethanol.

DuPont, working in partnership with the U.S. DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, began work on perfecting its cellulosic enzyme platform in 2000. In 2009, DuPont began operations at a demonstration facility in Vonore, Tennessee, and the following year went to work on supply chain research with corn farmers in central Iowa. In 2011, DuPont decided upon Nevada as the site for the facility, and purchased land adjacent to Lincolnway Energy, with an eye on leveraging the existing energy and logistical assets in place at the starch-based plant. Construction began in earnest in 2012. “This plant has been a long time coming, and we’re proud it’s here,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad.

At full capacity, the facility will annually convert nearly 700,000 bales of corn stover into 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol. The stover collection will require the efforts of over 150 employees each fall, with bales coming from nearly 500 different farms. DuPont estimates the annual economic value of the demand the facility will create for corn stover in the tens of millions of dollars.

DuPont’s challenge now is to bring the facility up to full throttle, a process that Jan Koninckx, global business director for biorefineries at DuPont Industrial Biosciences, likened to the shakedown cruise new naval vessels typically take. “We have done this many times before at DuPont, bringing new technologies online,” he said. “At the same time, we know that there is, inherently, a degree of uncertainty in a first plant. When you start up a third or fourth or fifth plant you can predict things much more accurately. We fully expect the first shipments of finished ethanol to come in 2016.”

The grand opening was as much a rally for the renewable fuel standard (RFS) as it was a celebration of the completion of the facility, as the uncertainty swirling around the policy is already impacting DuPont’s licensing prospects in the U.S. “I think it goes back to what we’ve been talking about relative to the RFS,” said Feehery. “Interest in the United States is a little bit stalled.”

However, there is growing interest globally, according to Feehery, and the company has signed a licensing agreement in China.

Since the DuPont’s grand opening celebration, the U.S. EPA has published the long-anticipated renewable volume obligations, providing some near-term guidance on the required usage of biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol for the next two years. The required volumes for cellulosic ethanol is set at 230 million for 2016. The industry’s reaction to the announced volumes was lukewarm, as the volumes, while increasing from volumes proposed earlier in the year, still fall short of the volumes set forth in the original program statute.

Once operational, the gallons produced in Nevada will be shipped to California, where the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard offers a premium for fuel with significantly reduced carbon intensity. DuPont also intends to sell a portion of its production into nonfuel markets, including and specifically mentioned an agreement with Proctor & Gamble, for which the ethanol will be used as a component in that company’s Tide laundry detergent product.

At the grand opening’s conclusion, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley observed proudly and pointedly that DuPont’s new facility would offer the world new ethanol gallons “without using a single additional bushel of corn or a single additional acre of land.”

Author: Tim Portz
Executive Editor, Biomass Magazine