Chemical, Ag-industry Titans Race to Conquer Corn “Stover” for Cellulosic Ethanol

After rotting away in fields for hundreds of years, corn “stover” – a quaint term for the stalks, leaves, cobs and husks discarded during harvest – suddenly seems as popular in the biofuel world as the latest hot contestant is on American Idol. So it would seem by the deluge of large-scale projects in recent months by a number of elite chemical and ag-industry titans who now seem to be in a race to find ways to transform corn stover into non-food cellulosic ethanol.

And these giants have got plenty to play with, because stover is the single largest sustainable cellulose biomass produced anywhere on earth still allowed to return to the soil every year. A small amount is used for animal feedstock and particle boards, but the vast bulk is relegated to erosion control and the re-carbonization of fields.

It will be going into your gas tank if companies like DuPont, Monsanto, BP, Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) and Deere & Co. have any say about it. All of these major players, and others, have launched pilot projects within the past months to explore different aspects of the problems posed in collecting and processing this enormous biomass – estimated to be at least equal in weight and volume to the food grain currently used in all ethanol production.

Potentially, the largest effort will be the one announced in August – a joint venture by ADM, Deere and Monsanto that will focus entirely on the harvest, collection and storage of stover, which was estimated to be in excess of 290 million tons in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No details of the venture have been announced – but with Deere’s involvement, speculation is obvious about new farm equipment designed to cost-effectively gather stover during harvest. (ADM, a major grain ethanol producer, entered the “next-generation biofuel” field earlier in 2008 with a partnership in Germany with Daimler and Bayer to produce biodiesel from jatropha.)

The ADM-Deere-Monsanto venture provides the deep pockets and expertise to research all the problems inherent in stover harvest, from seed production and soil management up to the finished ethanol product – which by the way, would produce 87% fewer carbon emissions than current petroleum products. And, if successful, the project additionally could eliminate the carbon emissions now entering the atmosphere from the natural decay of stover in America’s corn fields!

As the first actual effort, an $8-million pilot plant producing cellulosic ethanol from corn waste cranked up just last month by Sioux Falls-based POET, the country’s largest grain ethanol producer. The facility is small – expected to produce only 20,000 gallons of fuel this year from corn cobs and corn fiber – but it could demonstrate once and for all the feasibility of production from corn waste. POET has a $200-million dollar project on line – called Project Liberty – for the year 2011.

DuPont entered the non-food ethanol field last May in a joint global venture with the Copenhagen-based Danisco, one of the world’s largest producers of food ingredients – resulting in DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC (DDCE). The announcement was that the firm would explore and develop ethanol production from stover and other non-food sources, such as sugar cane bagasse, wheat straw, and other cellulosic feedstocks yet to be determined.

The exploration didn’t take long. Within weeks, DDCE launched a $140-million investment in a project with the University of Tennessee, which is providing another $40.7 million set aside by the Tennessee Biofuels Initiative of 2007. The state-of-the-art plant already is under construction at Vonore, TN, and is expected to devote its full capacity – about 250,000 gallons a year – split between the usage of stover and switchgrass. It is expected to be operational by the end of the year.

The Tennessee project originally was to be with a smaller company and would have depended partly on a U.S. Department of Energy grant. DuPont’s quick entry probably wasn’t hurt by the fact that the company’s CEO and chairman is Chad Holliday Jr., a 1970 UT-Knoxville industrial engineering graduate and Big Orange fan.

Commercial-scale production of cellulosic ethanol, from stover or any other sustainable biosource, is still years away. But there are strong signs of its inevitability.

The best, perhaps, is that oil giant BP itself sank $90 million of its hard-earned petro-profits into a partnership last August with Verenium Corp., a Massachusetts-based bio-energy firm. The result: A small pilot cellulosic ethanol plant to be built this year in Highlands County, FL, very similar in intent to those described above.


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