Hot Spots: 10 Advanced Bioeconomy Places to Watch in Iowa

August 29, 2017 |

Eddyville, Fort Dodge, Clinton, Newton, Cedar Rapids. Communities like these have been mainstays of the Iowa bioeconomy for years, even decades — home to corn and soy processing on the largest world scale, and much much more — integrated complexes of advanced refining where companies share infrastructure and often where the residues of the one process become feedstocks for another. They’ve been to farm products what fossil fuel hot spots like the Baytown, Texas mega-complex have meant to oil refining.

Now, they have company. A new generation of technologies are coming forward, and a new generation of technologists. Research centers have become the focal point for Iowa’s future, and a slew of new bioindustrial towns — some famed for many years for their role in the bioeconomy, some emerging out of relative obscurity. They’re clean, they’re green, they’re growing, they’re an engine for the economies around them — and unusually and deeply interconnected not only to their R&D roots but to the existing bioeconomy infrastructure. They are linking the city and countryside in an unforgettable manner.

Where’s the action? From projects to process for new fuels, chemicals, materials and wealth creation – here are 10 places where the advanced bioeconomy future is being unveiled.

And as we observed in 2015 in discussing how Communities of Progress are born:


Take Nevada, Iowa for an example. For years, its been most widely known as the nearby support town to the sprawling Iowa State University complex at Ames. But it has become a little titan, home to a first-generation ethanol plant (locally-owned by central Iowa citizens), the next-generation DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol plant (under construction), and Thesis Chemistry. Jill Euken, Deputy Director, at the ISU Bioeconomy Institute in Amex has become a big fan of the town as a success story in renewable fuels and economic revival.

“The community has built a reputation for its ability to provide infrastructure, investment and debt capital, linkages to State of Iowa services,” she noted for the Digest. For her, it has all the elements working together that make economic revival and growth possible: Leadership. Producer partners. Partnerships.”

1. Ames

Ames is becoming to Iowa what Stanford and Palo Alto has meant in the history of Silicon Valley. Not only a place of technology development, but of remarkable imagination.

The catalyst for this Iowa review in fact is this remarkable paper by Brent H. Shanks and Peter L. Keeling of the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), based at Iowa State University in Ames. Shanks and center leaders are proposing a new model for creating, applying and commercializing chemicals made from biomass. The model calls for identifying “bioprivileged molecules” that offer unique properties that could lead to new products.

They write:

The petrochemical industry is built on C2–C4 alkenes and aromatics as intermediate molecules, which are converted to a range of products. This industry is highly developed with little opportunity for new chemical products. In comparison biological-derived intermediates from biomass have the potential to introduce a new set of intermediate molecules, which can be converted to molecules that directly replace petrochemicals. Even more promising is the potential to convert biological-derived intermediates to novel chemical species that impart enhanced performance properties in their end use. Here the concept of bioprivileged molecules is introduced as a useful new paradigm for developing biobased chemicals. Included are muconic acid, 5-hydroxymethylfurfural and triacetic acid lactone as example bioprivileged molecules. Also, discussed is the research needed to move this concept forward.

The paper is a must-read for theoreticians and practitioners in the advanced bioeconomy and is here.

Beyond High Temples of Advanced Thinkology, Ames is forming an interesting bridge to the mid-21st Century in applying its expertise in biorenewable technologies and pilot plant operations to the country’s tenth Manufacturing USA Institute.

As we reported in December, the advanced manufacturing institute is dedicated to improving the productivity and efficiency of chemical manufacturing. Those improvements could include combining processes such as mixing, reacting and separating into single steps. The new institute will be known as RAPID, the Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment Institute. The American Institute of Chemical Engineers in New York City will lead the effort, which was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The U.S. Department of Energy announced it would support the institute with $70 million over five years, subject to federal appropriations. Another $70 million is expected from RAPID’s partners, including companies, universities, laboratories and other organizations.

But let’s also consider the commercial-scale as well.

Although operating throughout the state (at Ralston, Mason City and Newton), Renewable Energy Group is based in Ames and it’s very much a cornerstone of Ames’ anchor on the top spot in this Iowa review. We’d point not only to the company’s remarkable capacity expansion in US and international biodiesel (and Ralston is doubling capacity as we write, to 30 million gallons per year, in a $24 million expansion), but has made remarkable progress following acquisition of Dynamic fuels and now has that renewable hydrocarbon plant operating above its 73 million gallon nameplate capacity in Geismar, Louisiana. But our favorite is this — REGI is the stock in the 2010s IPO wave that has performed the best — perhaps proving, as the Iowa story itself does, that success comes from effectively marrying the development of the new to the heft of the old.

2. Des Moines

The catalyst for success in Iowa has been its remarkably bipartisan and forward-thinking economic development policies — and all that is hashed out in Des Moines.

In May we reported that then-Governor Terry Branstad (now US Ambassador to China) has signed the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund bill (HF 643), which provides $3 million to fund the Renewable Fuels Infrastructure Program. In 2016, Iowa’s biodiesel plants produced a record 305 million gallons of biodiesel, according to the National Biodiesel Board. A study by ABF Economics shows biodiesel activity generated about 3,800 full-time equivalent jobs and $300 million of household income in Iowa.

Despite the victory, the legislative session posed challenges for the biofuels industry, Kimberley said. The Iowa House introduced legislation to reduce all state tax credits, which included a reduction and cap on renewable fuel retailer credits. IBB led the charge against the cut by mobilizing a network of members and coalition partners to convey the importance of these tax credits, and reinforce with legislators how the credits benefit Iowa’s economy and environment.

We’ll also point to the remarkable DuPont Pioneer HQ in Johnson, which is essentially a suburb of Des Moines these days — and may well become in the Dow DuPont merger and re-split the global HQ of a stand-alone company that combines the agricultural assets of DuPont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences.


3. Nevada

It’s Ne-VAY-da, rather than Ne-VAH-da, you won’t find Donny & Marie or Celene Dion in residence, but you will find here in Nevada the DuPont Cellulosic Ethanol plant here — the world’s largest of its type and representing in many ways to the advanced bioeconomy what The Mirage represented to Las Vegas — a real catalyst for future growth.

In November 2015, we reported that DuPont opened the 30 million gallon cellulosic ethanol plant as then Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, Iowa senior Senator Charles Grassley, then Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds (now Governor) , and Congressman Steve King were the headliners for the opening ceremonies.

The majority of the fuel produced at the Nevada, Iowa, facility will be bound for California, and the plant also will serve as a commercial-scale demonstration of the cellulosic technology. 500 local farmers will provide the annual 375,000 dry tons of stover needed to produce this cellulosic ethanol from within a 30-mile radius of the facility. In addition to providing a new revenue stream for these growers, the plant will create 85 full-time jobs at the plant and more than 150 seasonal local jobs in Iowa.

But let’s get beyond the Nevada facility and highlight one of the most interesting small research centers in the country. That’s the Iowa Energy Center’s Biomass Energy Conversion facility (BECON). The BECON utilizes several biomass conversion systems. The Center for Crops Utilization Research contains pilot scale processing, product development and testing equipment for food and non food items. Private laboratory space is available for companies working on projects in this center.

Put that together with a large commercial-scale conventional ethanol plant (Lincolnway Energy) and the world-wide training and information center for Case New Holland Global on the edge of town — and you have the case for Nevada as a highlight hot spot.

4. Emmetsburg

In the northwest corner of the state and not on the road to anywhere in particular except perhaps the 22nd century is the small town of Emmetsburg, which looms large in advanced bioeconomy circles because of the POET-DSM cellulosic ethanol commercial plant ramping up there. Somehow, not long ago, the King of the Netherlands found his way here to inspect the goings on — and the town barks louder than its population. It’s become a fascinating home to the latest in cellulosic biomass harvesting equipment sales, too.

In February we reported that POET-DSM Advanced Biofuels will build an on-site enzyme manufacturing facility in Emmetsburg, pending state and local approvals. Here’s what we’ve heard from POET-DSM. “The facility is producing at a rate of 70 gallons per bone-dry ton of biomass, near the target conversion rate, and is currently in a ramp-up phase.” And what that tells you is everything you need to know. If they could jam a half-ton bale a minute into that system, they’d be shipping massive quantities of high-value cellulosic fuels to California, minting money, and we’d be chatting about which POET facility gets the next cellulosic license. It’s the rate. It takes a certain amount of technical Whoopee to get a bale that sloppy, that ready for enzymes, and that ready for hydrolysis, in 60 seconds or less.

Meanwhile, there’s also the Green Biologics story here. Most recently, we reported last December that Green Biologics reports that it has commenced commercial shipments of bio-based n-butanol and acetone from its 21 million gallon manufacturing facility in Little Falls, Minnesota – by the end of 2016, just as they said they would.

The good news had an Iowa connection — the process was thoroughly demonstrated via a modification of Easy Energy Systems’s ethanol demonstration plant in Emmetsburg, IA, where the partners produced renewable n-butanol and acetone as far back as 2012 at a 40,000 liter fermentation scale. And, the company produced 50 tons of product out of China in a demonstration-and-marketing-push, which was sold and sampled.

Virtually all the 1-2 liter samples that need to get out to customers to test on the bench were shipping out at year end. For customers who need as much as 100 tons of product to trial run in their own processes, Green Biologics expected to complete those by now.

5. Boone

Just a few miles to the west of Ames is the smaller town of Boone, which is how to the remarkable BioCentury Research Farm. In September 2016, we reported that the latest pilot plant at Iowa State’s BCRF is a joint project with Chevron U.S.A. University engineers are using the pilot plant to develop and demonstrate an advanced biorenewables technology called solvent liquefaction. The technology converts biomass such as quarter-inch wood chips into a bio-oil that can be processed into fuels or chemicals and a biochar that can enrich soils. The project is supported by a four-year, $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative, obtained by Iowa State.

6. Galva

A strong advance just appeared on the radar this week, in Galva, home of Quad County Corn Processors. In April of 2017 Taurus Energy, Lallemand Biofuels & Distilled Spirits, Syngenta and initiated a trial of Taurus Energy’s xylose/C6 co-fermenting yeast XyloFerm in the Cellerate process to evaluate performance at large scale. The trial has concluded and results confirm that XyloFerm can successfully convert C5 and C6 sugars to ethanol in the full scale industrial process. We note that for the foreseeable future work will be performed at lab scale and/or pilot scale due to scheduling restrictions at Quad County Corn Processors.

Last August we reported that Quad County Corn Processors reported a 26 percent increase in ethanol production after a recently-completed trial. The trial consisted of a combination of Cellerate process technology and Enogen corn. Brotherson said this dramatic increase was achieved by realizing an additional 6 percent yield per bushel from converting kernel fiber into cellulosic ethanol, plus a 20 percent throughput increase by combining Cellerate with Enogen.

“These results, and our experience of the past two years, confirm the consistent performance benefits available through Cellerate enhanced by Enogen – and we believe the potential could be even greater,” Brotherson said. “Cellerate can help plants produce more ethanol from an existing asset base, increase total yield of distillers grains corn oil and improve the protein content of feed co-products.”

7. Afton

In March we reported that a demonstration by an Iowa farm cooperative aims to persuade more farmers in the state to use biodiesel. United Farmers Cooperative, based at Afton in southern Iowa, put two trucks head-to-head to compare how blends of 5% and 20% biodiesel (B5 and B20) performed. The B20 truck won.

The four-month trial in 2016 had identical company automatic 18-wheelers with Volvo engines fill up with biodiesel from United Farmers Cooperative blender pumps. Darin Schlapia, the co-op’s energy operations manager, kept records on differences in miles per gallon between the trucks. At the end of the trial, the B5 truck averaged 5.19 mpg. The B20 truck averaged 5.84 mpg.

8. Clinton

In June we reported that Phyco2 said that is shifting its focus to meet the growing market demand for algae production.

Six primary high-value markets with strong growth both in the United States and globally have been identified as bio-stimulants, bio-pesticides, animal feed, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. The global market for algae is growing at an estimated Compound Annual Growth Rate of 7% a year, with a $1.1 billion in sales by 2022. The company is currently investing in production plants in Clinton, Iowa with an estimated initial production of 1000 metric tons of algae per year.
Phyco2 plans to begin building commercial scale production plants and start operations within the next two years.

The company backstory: Phyco2 has a high algae productivity rate due to its Algae Photobioreactor (APB) technologies that allow pure microalgae to grow indoors, 24 hours a day, at any time of the year, with minimal water consumption, and in any geographic location. Phyco2’s APB technologies grow algae without sunlight or risk of contamination, unlike open-pond systems.  Phyco2 will be utilizing their APB technologies to produce algae for these growing markets.

Phyco2 refocuses algae R&D on Agriculture, Nutrition

9. Atlantic

Last December we reported that construction is set to start early in the new year on a new $196 million corn-based ethanol plant in Cass County. With an eye on producing about 120 million gallons of fuel annually, Elite Octane are still finalizing an agreement with county officials over the exact details regarding tax rebates, infrastructure investment and other details but developers are confident a deal will be agreed soon so construction can begin. The plant should be commissioned in June 2018.

10. Shenandoah

We have reported over the years on progress with the BioProcess Algae project, co-located at the Green Plains Renewable Energy plant in Shenandoah, in the far southwest corner of the state. BPA, LLC designs, builds, and operates commercial scale Grower HarvesterTM bioreactors that enable efficient conversion of light and CO2 into high value microbial feedstock. It’s now at a 5-acre demonstration scale, expected to be the final step before active commercialization at Shenandoah and other sites.

The focus of that demonstration was to prove that it can successfully utilize excess CO2 and process heat from the Shenandoah ethanol plant to produce microalgae. Second, it has proven (at pilot scale) that its unique growth media can work – and this is an important breakthrough, because the company is growing microalgae out of solution, using a biofilm. Meanwhile, the product focus has shifted with the economic winds — it’s a five-sector set including Animal Feed protein, Nutraceuticals, Fish Feed, Chemicals (ingredients for plastics, resins and lubricants) and fuels.

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