DuPont to manufacture cellulosic ethanol



Despite modest growth in the world of biofuels in 2012, there is great momentum in the sector with global biofuels production predicted to double from 2013 to 2021.

Amid idling plants and some biotechnology company closures, cellulosic ethanol was the big story. The year 2013 will see cellulosic fuels produced at commercial scale plants in the US, Europe and China, and DuPont will open one of the largest cellulosic biorefineries in the world in 2014.


Biofuels 2012: A year in review


Last year saw significant highs and lows for industrial biotechnology. Poor global harvests drove corn and sugar prices up, increasing production costs. While tight capital markets and difficulties with commercial-scale-up put a number of industrial biotechnology firms under extreme pressure—with some idling and others closing—several companies are moving strongly ahead in biofuels, notably in cellulosic ethanol and renewable diesel.


Biofuels 2013: Looking ahead


Commercial-scale production of cellulosic fuels will start up plants in Europe, China and the US during 2013, driven by government mandates and subsidies, and the fact that these advanced biofuels do not displace food and feed crops. Low biomass and municipal solid waste feedstock cost, and technologies that convert methane and coal into competitive liquid fuels versus ever-rising crude oil costs, may provide the momentum for competitive adoption of second generation cellulosic and third generation algae technologies for fuel.


Liquid fuels from renewable resources


Biofuels are liquid fuels from renewable resources aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependency on fossil fuels. Global biofuels production—mainly ethanol and biodiesel—is predicted to double between 2013 to 2021 to about 246 billion litres (65 billion US gallons) in response to increasing oil prices, shrinking oil reserves and more difficult exploration sites. The transition to renewable or “green” fuels is also driven by government mandates in nearly 40 countries, which are aimed at injecting larger volumes of biofuels into the fuel supply, supported by new feedstock availability and advancing technologies.


The USA, Brazil and the European Union are currently the three largest biofuels markets, representing over 80% of global production, with North America producing nearly 50% of world ethanol, while the EU accounts for some 50% of biodiesel production. Ethanol blended gasoline already represents nearly 90% of the total US gasoline pool, and it has been estimated that ethanol and other biofuels could replace 30% or more of US gasoline demand by 2030. This is motivated by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2). In Europe, the EU’s mandated Renewable Energy Directive goal of 10% renewable energy in transportation by 2020 will be met primarily by biofuels.


Fuel versus food: Benefits of cellulosic ethanol


There is growing investment in technologies to produce cellulosic ethanol from non-food based feedstock and inedible residues from food crop harvesting, allaying criticism that biofuels production diverts food crops away from human consumption. Importantly, cellulosic ethanol, described as “the cleanest liquid fuel in the world”, also produces lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions.


Ambitious European and US government production goals and incentives are helping drive growth. The year 2013 is expected to be the breakthrough year for cellulosic ethanol, driven by the US EPA’s RFS2 cellulosic biofuels mandate calling for 14 million gallons of “clean renewable fuels” in 2013. The cellulosic biofuels industry is transitioning from research and development and pilot scale to commercial scale production. Several plants have progressed to start-up phase, and capacity is increasing.


DuPont to produce cellulosic ethanol


DuPont is a little more than a year away from commercializing advanced biofuels. The company’s new US cellulosic ethanol facility in the city of Nevada, Iowa is due for completion in mid-2014. The $200+ million facility will be among the first and largest commercial-scale cellulosic bio-refineries in the world and is expected to generate 30 million gallons annually of clean, sustainable cellulosic biofuel produced from corn stover residues, a non-food feedstock that consists of corn stalks and leaves.


“Nearly a decade ago, DuPont set out to develop innovative technology that would result in low capital and low-cost cellulosic ethanol production. We recognized that science-powered innovation was the catalyst to make cellulosic ethanol a commercial reality and to help reduce global dependence on fossil fuels,” said James C. Collins, president, DuPont Industrial Biosciences.


Agricultural and environmental benefits


The new plant will offer agricultural and environmental benefits. Local corn growers who will deliver over 375,000 dry tons of stover per year into the Nevada facility expect the stover harvest program to have a positive effect on grain yields the following year.


Environmentally, the use of advanced biofuels can result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. A life cycle assessment of the DuPont biorefinery and supply chain indicates a potential greater than 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline, enabled by use of cellulosic coproducts as a source of renewable energy.


Leading the way


DuPont Industrial Biosciences brings together expertise from Danisco, Genencor, and DuPont to yield a unique combination of strengths in enzyme technology, materials science and bioprocessing. The company is leading the way to enable biofuels companies to more cost-effectively manufacture biofuel from non-food feedstocks such as switchgrass, wheat straw and corn stover to reduce our global dependence on fossil fuels.