DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The world's largest refinery that turns corn plant waste into ethanol began production Wednesday in Iowa, and many national and international dignitaries in attendance touted the technology as a major step in the shift from the fossil fuel age to a biofuels revolution.
Project Liberty is a $250 million joint venture between a Netherlands biotechnology company and POET, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based ethanol maker. It's expected to make 25 million gallons of ethanol a year from corn cobs, stalks, leaves and other plant residue left on fields as waste.
The king of the Netherlands was among the national and international officials who gathered for the opening ceremony Wednesday in Emmetsburg, a northern Iowa town of 3,000 people.
Poet owns 27 ethanol pants, seven of which are in Iowa including a traditional corn ethanol plant located at the same site as the new cellulosic refinery.
To flashing laser lights and a high-tech stage production the opening was marked with the cutting of red, white and blue ribbons wrapped around baled corn residue.
"This is not simply opening a new plant but it is a transformative moment in time. The turning of an important page of our history books," said Feike Sijbesma, CEO of Royal DSM, the Netherlands company. "We are witnessing the start of the shift of the fossil age we have lived in and we still live in to the bio-renewable age we're entering today."
Poet founder and executive chairman Jeff Broin said he was told many times over the past decade that his dream of making ethanol from plant waste instead of the corn kernel was a fantasy. He said he was called crazy.
"It is my hope and my belief that a hundred years from now people will remember how crazy people in a small town in Iowa changed the world in 2014," he said.
It has taken the industry decades of research and billions of dollars to develop the technological breakthroughs that use a cocktail of enzymes to break down plant material and newly developed yeasts to turn plant sugars into ethanol.
To provide the feedstock for the plant, farmers within a 40-mile radius of the plant will remove corn plant residue from the fields, bale it and deliver it as needed. They're paid $65 to $75 per dry ton. The plant will use 770 tons of biomass daily.
The ethanol industry has promised for years that commercial cellulosic production was near only to find the process more difficult than expected. Naysayers cast doubt on whether it was even possible on a large scale.
"If you had any doubt about this industry, about the cellulosic future of this industry all you need to do is come to Emmetsburg," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said.
King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands traveled 6,000 miles to attend the ceremony and help in the ribbon cutting.
The state of Iowa invested about $20 million in the plant for engineering and construction costs through tax credits and job training funds. The U.S. Department of Energy provided $100 million in grants over seven years. Deputy Undersecretary for Science and Energy Michael Knotek said cellulosic ethanol helps the nation reach its goals of energy security, job creation and reduction in air pollution.
"This is a watershed event in meeting those goals," he said.
Similar cellulosic refineries are expected to open later this year at Nevada in central Iowa and in Hugoton, Kansas.