The commercialization of cellulosic ethanol began in October of 2013 with the launch of the 13 million gallons per year (MGY) plant in Crescentino, Italy. Since then, four additional cellulosic ethanol plants have popped up—two in the United States and two in Brazil. On October 30, DuPont formally opened the sixth commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa.

DuPont will work with 500 local farmers to harvest a whopping 375,000 dry tons of agricultural waste from 190,000 acres of farmland within 30 miles of the plant. The agricultural waste collected annually will be converted into up to 30 million gallons of cost-competitive fuel-grade ethanol.

This agricultural waste is known as “stover” and is comprised of excess corn cobs, leaves and stalks. Following a corn harvest, some stover is used by farmers to control erosion or to create animal bedding and feed. However, the majority of stover is typically left on the ground to rot, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Utilizing this residue in second generation biofuels adds value to what would otherwise go to waste.

The facility will be the second commercial-scale cellulosic biofuel plant in the state of Iowa, which has become a proving ground for the collection, storage, shipping and pre-treatment of stover. The first facility is “Project Liberty,” a plant by POET-DSM in Emmetsburg, Iowa, that launched in September of 2014. Project Liberty consumes over 285,000 dry tons of local biomass and will produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually.

This is a major feat for the cellulosic ethanol industry and a step in the right direction for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which originally envisioned 16 billion gallons of cellulosic fuel being produced by 2022. While this timing seems too aggressive, real-world plants can now be harvested and transformed in commercial production volumes.

In 2013, the president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, Bob Dinneen, said, “The single most important reason why the oil industry is fighting the RFS is that it is seeing cellulosic ethanol on the cusp of commercialization.” Now, that is becoming the reality.

DuPont cellulosic opening marks another milestone

But, Iowa isn’t the only American state producing cellulosic ethanol. Kansas broke ground with a cellulosic plant in Hugoton last October. Operated by Abengoa Bioenergy, the plant will produce 25 million gallons of ethanol derived from nearly 350,000 tons of biomass annually.

The cellulosic ethanol industry is maturing around the world too. On July 22n, 2015 Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff launched a cellulosic ethanol plant in Piracicaba, São Paulo as collaboration with one of the world’s largest producers of sugarcane ethanol, Raízen. President Rousseff called the production of second generation ethanol “the realization of a dream for the country.”

“The collaboration between the State and Raízen is part of the government’s commitment to ethanol production as a strategic measure for economic development,” said Rousseff.

The Raízen plant is one of the first cellulosic ethanol plants in Brazil, second only to the 21 MGY plant of GranBio’s that has stood in Alagoas State since September 2014.

Within a span of little more than two years, six commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants have sprung up around the world—representing close to $2 billion of steel in the ground with a capacity of next to 2 million tons of biomass corresponding to more than 120 MGY of cellulosic ethanol. Construction of plants continues, with Finland joining the bandwagon with a new bio-refinery based on saw-dust in Kajaani thanks to St1 Biofuels. The facility is currently under construction and expected to open next year.

Long story short, cellulosic ethanol is moving ahead!

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Florian Isermeyer

Based in Denmark, Florian is Global Marketing Manager in Novozymes’ Biomass Conversion BD team. In this role he coordinates Novozymes’ global marketing efforts in the Biomass Conversion area and is also leading the launch of next generation enzyme products. He comes with an education from Stockholm School of Economics and the University of St. Gallen. Outside of work, he is a keen swimmer, road biker and sailor.