Is corn still “king” in the world of biofuels?

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

A panel of experts at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop, reviewing all that is happening with cellulose ethanol, advanced biofuels and advances in the production of grain-based ethanol agreed that corn will remain “king” when it comes to ethanol production in America.

“The process of making corn into ethanol created this party,” said John Caupert, who said that in spite of his role as director of the National Corn-To-Ethanol Research Center in Edwardsville, Illinois, he felt that this judgment is sound and unbiased. He said. “Corn ethanol will always be three legs of the four-legged stool–it sets the pathway for growth of cellulose and other advanced fuels.”

The experts noted that the 15 billion gallon per year requirement for biofuels set by the Renewable Fuels Standard II is an artificial one that may be unique in all the world of manufactured goods and products. The panel took place at the 2012 Fuel Ethanol Workshop at the Minneapolis Convention Center in the beginning of June, organized by BBI International, a biofuels analysis firm and publisher of Ethanol Producers Magazine. Minnesota Corn Growers Association is a major supporter of the event.

The panel highlighted ethanol’s benefits and some of its unique challenges.

“What other product has a strict limit to how much can be produced?” asked Pete Moss, marketing vice president of Cereal Process Technologies. “As we produce more and more corn and yet the limit of 15 billion gallons remain, the price of corn will fall and that’s a problem.”

Of course, the RFS standard is not a limit, but in effect it can act as one in the other way that ethanol is unique–it has a single customer, and that customer’s main business concern is producing a competing product. That is, oil companies–when they use ethanol they use less of their own product, gasoline.

“Another problem comes with attempts to go beyond corn, and to use xyz crop as a feedstock,” said Moss. “It’s not just an economic question, but a regulatory. The producers of this new version of ethanol would have to go through the EPA process to approve the use of the new feedstock.”

In contrast, corn for ethanol is a very efficient, well-proved process, according to Rich Chmielewski, Biofuels Marketing Manager for Siemens Industry, Inc.

While the political question of increasing the floor for grain ethanol use becomes a matter for debate, ethanol plants can pursue another option to keep growing. Co-products like corn oil and de-oiled protein feed products will become the norm at dry grind ethanol plants in the future he predicted.

“Diversification of corn ethanol facilities–colocating biorefineries–that will be a pathway to profitability,” said Chmielewski.

Caupert said one of the co-products that ethanol plants will benefit from, once the technology matures, is cellulose ethanol.

“The corn kernel fiber is ‘the forgotten’ source of cellulose for ethanol, already travelling to the 200-plus plants producing biofuels in the US,” said Caupert.


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