Ethanol: the next generation

Biomass at ethanol
South Dakota is home to the two largest ethanol producers in the nation. VeraSun and Poet are both working to develop cellulosic ethanol. Poet plans to open a pilot test plant later this year and will start construction on it's first cellulosic plant next year.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

When farmers harvest their corn crop, some of the plant is left behind. But now, there's a clause in the farm bill that encourages farmers to store and transport the stalks and corn cobs.

The idea, promoted by Sen. John Thune, R-SD, will pay farmers to save the byproducts from their corn fields. The material will go to a new generation of ethanol plants that can use the biomass in new biofuel plants.

The BioMass Crop Assistance Program also offers loan guarantees for investors in the new plants. Thune says it alleviates the chicken and egg problems around new technology.

"To get the farmer to grow energy-dedicated crops, to get investment in bio-refineries, the research is a big component," Thune says, "so we can get to where we can commercialize this. And we hope at least the farm bill with the energy title, will facilitate this."

"I believe we are in the prime area of North America for cellulosic feed stock production and therefore where the industry would establish itself."

South Dakota is home to the two largest ethanol producers in the nation.

VeraSun and Poet are both working to develop cellulosic ethanol. Poet plans to open a pilot test plant later this year and will start construction on its first cellulosic plant next year.

There's already plenty of material available for cellolosic production, according to South Dakota State University researcher Kevin Kephart.

"I believe we are in the prime area of North America for cellulosic feed stock production and therefore where the industry would establish itself," he says.

Ethanol supporters believe the corn-based fuel will continue at the same level of production.

But there's growing concern about the percentage of the nation's corn crop that's going for fuel production. The new cellulosic process would give the ethanol industry another way to grow without using more corn.

Another criticism of the ethanol/corn boom is that it's encouraged more farmers to take land out of conservation programs that protect highly erodible land and put it back into crop production.

In South Dakota, 300,000 acres will come out of conservation programs this year, and go back into production. Nationally the number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program dropped by 2 million acres.

Jack Majeres, with the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts, says cellulosic ethanol will help protect the environment.

"It's inevitable in some respects, because of the higher grain prices. But again, we need to do all of this under an approved conservation plan so we don't end up damaging our environment in our effort to try and reduce our dependency on foreign oil," Majeres says.

Researchers predict within the next 20 years, technology advances could double crop yields per acre. That would mean more corn and more options to use it for both food and fuel.

But for now, the next generation in ethanol will have to depend on something besides corn kernels.

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