During the 2011 harvest, farmers around Emmetsburg were focused on more than the corn harvest.
They also baled approximately 61,000 bone-dry tons of corn crop residue, including corn cobs, leaves and husks, which will be delivered to a biomass storage site in Emmetsburg, where POET's Project LIBERTY commercial cellulosic ethanol biorefinery is taking shape.
"Iowa is a great incubator for rolling out cellulosic biofuels, and this region is the epicenter of the next big agricultural movement," said Adam Wirt, regional biomass coordinator for POET Biomass LLC, who provided an update on the project during the 2011 Farm News Ag Show in Fort Dodge on Nov. 30.
The $200 million Project LIBERTY is POET's 25 million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant, which is located with an existing grain-based ethanol plant.
Early site work, including grading and construction of a weigh station, is under way for the cellulosic ethanol plant, which is scheduled to come online in mid-2013, according to POET, which has received a $105 million U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee.
POET is working closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service to ensure sustainable residue removal practices that protect the health of the soil and control soil erosion.
POET’s Adam Wirt told his audience at the Farm News Ag Show Wednesday morning that removing 25 percent of residue cover is environmentally sustainable, according to an Iowa State University multi-year study.
Wirt said a multi-year research from Iowa State University shows that the removal of up to 25 percent of the above-ground corn residue is environmentally sustainable.
He noted that POET asks farmers involved in Project LIBERTY not to exceed this level when baling. By working with producers, POET has also developed standard operating procedures for sustainable biomass collection and best practices for bale handling and storage.
The low density of biomass poses one of the biggest challenges when transporting and storing the product.
"We want to be a teacher who shares information with farmers, because we want them to play a key role in this project," said Wirt, who answered a non-stop stream of questions from audience members.
"We're all learning together," he said
Beyond the kernel
There's a steep learning curve involved in transitioning from a pilot project to a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant.
POET has conducted research on the project for nearly a decade, although the pilot project at Emmetsburg didn't begin to take shape until 2006.
While only five or six producers participated in the project several years ago, the 2011 biomass harvest number represents 10 new contracts, for a total of 100 farmers, Wirt said.
Producers who were involved in the project before maintained or increased their acres in 2011, he said.
Corn growers are helping POET move toward 125,000 tons of biomass by next year, Wirt said, followed by 250,000 tons in 2013 and a target of 300,000 tons of biomass per year by 2014.
"To get that much biomass, we'll need about one third of the corn acres within a 35-mile radius of Emmetsburg, which equals about 300,000 acres," said Wirt, who noted that this will involve about 400 to 500 producers.
Growers who participate in Project LIBERTY are responsible for collecting, harvesting and transporting the biomass to the Emmetsburg plant. The bales will be delivered to POET's 22-acre stackyard.
"While there are some storage losses with biomass, they are not as great as you'd think," he said.
Mold is not a big issue with biomass that's converted in biofuel, Wirt said.
During the conversion process, the sugars in the biomass are stripped out and processed into ethanol, while the remaining lignin is made into biogas, which provides an excellent heat source that can power both the grain ethanol plant and the cellulosic ethanol plant.
Biosolids that remain after the ethanol and biogas are produced can be returned to the field as a soil amendment that provides nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients for next year's crop.
Leading the way with biofuels
POET's cellulosic ethanol plant at Emmetsburg will serve as a model that can be replicated for new biorefineries in other areas. In addition, POET is looking for additional markets for the biofuel that will be produced in these biorefineries, Wirt said.
"We're looking into whether biofuel can be substituted for some of the coal in coal-fired power plants, although we know that the biofuel will have to be as affordable and as consistent an energy producer as coal."
The potential is great, added Wirt, who noted that Iowa corn farmers have led the way on renewable biofuels and are once again in a place to help make this reality.
"Biomass collection will continue to grow, because it's a sustainable activity that offers a lot of opportunities. Northwest Iowa is a prime spot for this, and there's a lot of upside to Project LIBERTY," he said.
You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.