Breaking the Bottleneck – POET-DSM achieves cellulosic biofuel breakthrough

November 3, 2017 |

It’s hard to believe the Digest was reporting on POET’s grand opening of its Project LIBERTY facility back in 2014, then its reaching of production goals earlier this year in April with yields of about 70 gallons of cellulosic per ton of corn stover, near its goal of 72 gallons, and now here we are bearing down on the last few months of 2017 with a huge announcement from POET about achieving a major breakthrough in cellulosic biofuels production.

Back in April, the company hinted that something more might be coming, saying they had plans to expand their technology, so maybe this was what the hint was all about.

In South Dakota, POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels achieved a major breakthrough in cellulosic biofuels production at its Project LIBERTY plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. The company has solved the critical challenge in pretreatment, overcoming what has been the No. 1 hurdle to commercialization for producers around the world, according to their news release. Project LIBERTY is now running pretreatment at 80 percent uptime.

POET-DSM and other producers have identified the pretreatment stage in the past as the major chokepoint in commercial production. With a newly installed pretreatment system, designed by POET engineers, POET-DSM is now able to direct its attention to fine-tuning downstream processes and prepare for future licensing efforts that will spread this technology around the world.

“This is an enormous step forward for clean, American-made biofuel,” POET-DSM board member Jeff Lautt said. “Commercializing new technology is always a challenging task, and I’m proud of the commitment from our team in overcoming this major challenge and developing a path for replicating the technology at facilities across the U.S. and world.”

Not only has POET solved the challenge of pretreatment, it also announced construction of an on-site enzyme manufacturing facility to directly pipe DSM enzymes into the process and ramped up biomass purchasing in anticipation of increased production levels in 2018.

POET’s new pretreatment innovation is especially interesting given that POET Design & Construction sued Andritz Inc. earlier this year in May, as reported in the Digest, over a failed 2G feedstock pretreatment system. Poet sued for a breach of contract and professional negligence after investing $25 million in a feedstock pretreatment system Andritz designed but was never able to produce the intermediates required for cellulosic ethanol production, despite 1.5 years of redesigns and multiple plant shut downs. Poet claimed the design failures have kept it from producing cellulosic ethanol at commercial scale. It first advised the company there were problems with the system as far back as 2014.

POET’s been on a roll lately with many other developments and expansions. They broke ground on their new $120M expansion site in Marion, Ohio with an expected increase from 70 million to 150 million gallons per year, as reported in the Digest in August.

In April 2017, POET teamed up with South Dakota State University’s College of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering students to work on solving some of their corn stover feedstock challenges. One of the students who helped develop a less energy-intensive process which increased reliability and decreased cost associated with converting corn stover to biofuels, was offered a full-time job with POET after graduation, probably as a result of his work on the project. The students needed to find a way to efficiently process waste materials like netwrap and twine that is mixed in with corn stalks, tree branches and debris chunks, into a useable fuel.

Happy anniversary

The pretreatment breakthrough is also a timely milestone for POET which celebrated its 30th anniversary of biofuels production last week. What began in 1987 with Jeff Broin and his family buying a bankrupt plant that had never run in Scotland, South Dakota, POET is now the largest biofuels producer in the world. According to KSFY, to celebrate, Governor Dennis Daugaard announced Thursday last week as ‘POET Day’ in the state.

“We hired 13 people, rebuilt the facility which was already there and not operating. Started it up. We grew the company from there,” POET Founder and CEO Jeff Broin told KSFY. “We produce 10 billion pounds of byproducts we ship throughout the world. 550 million pounds of corn oil, a lot of which becomes biodiesel so renewable fuels is a byproduct of renewable fuels. We think that’s pretty unique,” Broin told KSFY.

Check out the Biofuel Digest’s 2015 POET 5-Minute Guide.

What it all comes down to…

As we reflect on accomplishments this year, it is inspiring to see so many advancements, innovations, and developments to solve current and future challenges. POET is helping move biofuels forward with breakthroughs in pretreatment, for example, as well as helping people, agriculture, and business thrive.

“It’s really been great to create all these careers for 2,000 people, creating companies all over the country, and create a new demand center for commodities that helps not every farmer in America but helps balance every farmer on the planet,” Broin told KSFY. “We wouldn’t be where we are without the support of the South Dakota Legislature and governors over the last 30 years, without the support of the U.S. House and Senate, without the support from several U.S. presidents. We hope that support continues. Ag is the largest industry in America. When it’s healthy, our country is healthy,” Broin told KSFY.

We agree that the agricultural industry is key to our country’s soul and when it does well, we do well. So here’s to continued innovations and advancements to improve our efficiencies, sustainability, and positive impact on planet and people.

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