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Project LIBERTY taking shape

By Staff | Nov 9, 2012

WORKERS AT THE Project LIBERTY site in Emmetsburg build concrete forms for pouring the bases of the new fermentation tanks at the cellulosic ethanol plant. Ground was broken in March to start the project. Production is set to start in late-2013.



EMMETSBURG – “It’s fun to see this taking shape,” said Adam Wirt, regional biomass coordinator for POET Biomass LLC. He was talking about the structures that are rising from the ground that will eventually become Project LIBERTY, a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant.

The $200 million plant is scheduled to begin production in late 2013. At peak capacity, the plant is expected to produce 25 million gallons of ethanol, all from corn stover – stalks, leaves and cobs.

Wirt, a 10-year POET employee, has been working with the company’s cellulosic research and development arm for the past five years. After all the months of planning and lessons learned through POET’s pilot plant in Scotland, S.D., and after the March groundbreaking and grading, underground pipe-laying and foundation pouring, Wirt said, “We’re now at the point to see the fun stuff happening.”

Project LIBERTY’s campus will include 27 acres for corn stover storage. When full, it will contain a three-week supply for the plant.

Last week, POET announced the purchase of the technology to draw sugars from corn residue in a two-step process from ANDRITZ Inc., the American component of an Austrian company. The bases for the fermentation and saccharification tanks are being poured this fall.

The ANDRITZ technology includes a vertical reactor, an interstage washer and then the continuous steam explosion technology to draw out available sugars from the cellulose material. It’s those sugars – through Project LIBERTY’s proprietary enzyme and yeast technologies – that get converted into ethanol.

Meanwhile, in the 27-acre stockyard, 40 trucks are daily rolling in large round and large square bales of stover. POET is increasing the amount of biomass being delivered to the site, Wirt said, in an effort to fine-tune storage efforts and get farmers used to the biomass collection process.

Wirt said just as farmers are accustomed to hauling grain to an elevator, where a sample probe is taken of the grain, the bales will also be probed to determine moisture and dirt content.

Wirt said Project LIBERTY will require 300,000 tons of stover annually once the plant hits peak capacity.

“We’re now at the point to see the fun stuff happening.” —Adam Wirt Regional biomass coordinator

“There’s no one in the U.S. that collects that much,” Wirt said, “so we are sourcing from local producers and large suppliers.”

The stockyard, when full will hold a mere three-week supply. He estimated the plant will require 70 to 90 trucks daily.

“If we collect every ounce of corn residue in Palo Alto County,” Wirt said, “we wouldn’t have enough.” An acre can produce roughly a ton of stover.

He said POET is seeking contracts with producers in a 35-mile radius from the plant. “That’s a million corn acres, so we’d need about one-third of that.”

This is the third fall in which the company is learning how to handle and store both types of stover bales, working out the logistics of intense number of daily shipments.

He said storing and handling challenges at this commercial-scale operation, is completely different at the South Dakota pilot plant.

He said when the plant is finished experimenting with handling and storing bales some will go to additional storage research, some will be sold back to the livestock industry for bedding and feed, and some will go to the ethanol plant in Chancellor, S.D. where they’ll be burned to provide power for that plant.

Once Project LIBERTY gets underway, Wirt said, the waste from stover processing will be burned on site to provide power for the plant. “Any excess will go to the other plant,” he said, referring to POET Biorefining, the corn-based ethanol plant next door.

“Stover in Iowa is a great start for us,” Wirt said. “Cellulosic (ethanol) is a 50-state solution.”

When asked if the plant would be capable of processing other source materials, such as switchgrass, Wirt said the company is determined to get stover processing down pat, and then look to expand into other source materials.

POET is rapidly expanding its technology in corn processing and extracting more products than distiller’s dried grain for livestock feed.

The company extracts corn oil from the process and markets that to biodiesel plants, and has other projects on the drawing board for new products..

“People will see soon,” Wirt said, “that these aren’t just ethanol plants, but biorefineries.

“We’re learning how to extract more products from corn.”

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