POET’s Project Liberty Corn Ethanol Plant is Ready for Its Closeup

POET breaks ground on Project Liberty cellulosic corn ethanol plantThe dream of converting corn husks and other inedible crop waste into biofuel is about to be realized in a big way, now that the global corn ethanol company POET has just broken ground on its $250 million Project Liberty corn ethanol refinery in Emmetsburg, Iowa. The new facility is expected to churn out about 20 million gallons of ethanol a year while pumping up to $20 million into the local economy after construction is completed midway through 2013.

Once Project Liberty is up to speed, it will produce about 25 million gallons a year and employ about 40 workers full time.

And yes, Project Liberty has won millions in financial commitments from the U.S. Department of Energy.

However, while Republican legislators and presidential candidates have been tearing into DOE loan guarantees for solar energy and laughing their pants off at President Obama’s enthusiasm for algae biofuel, there is little chance that this particular alternative energy project will suffer the same fate.

Bipartisan support for corn ethanol (sort of)

POET is unlikely to become the subject of partisan political attacks partly because at least $80 million in DOE funding for Project Liberty originated in 2007, under the Bush Administration.

In addition, not too many politicians would go out on a limb to bash an important rural economic development project. The campaign of Newt Gingrich, for one, received $20,000 in donations from POET personnel and relatives last year through the company’s political action committee. The Federal Elections Commission has also ruled that farmers can contribute to the company’s PAC, too.

Two other front-running Republican candidates have found other ways to dance around the issue. Mitt Romney went on the record in support of corn ethanol subsidies last May, though by October he indicated that this was not his permanent position (surprise!).

Rick Santorum also put voters on notice that he was not a big supporter of ethanol subsidies, but managed to bury that message under the wheels of his pickup truck on a 99-county tour of Iowa that emphasized his position on social issues.

More federal funds for Project Liberty…or not

Last September DOE awarded a loan guarantee of $105 million for Project Liberty but even if the Republican candidates felt like making an issue out of the loan, it is now a moot point.

On January 23 POET announced that it will decline the new DOE funding, since it has found an alternative source of financing in the form of a joint venture with Royal DSM, the Dutch materials sciences giant.

Next generation corn ethanol production

Project Liberty is being built on the grounds of an existing POET corn ethanol refinery. It uses a breakthrough enzyme and fermentation process to extract syrup from inedible cellulosic biomass — cobs, husks, stalks and leaves, also called corn stover. In contrast, conventional corn ethanol refining requires a soft-tissue feedstock, namely corn kernels.

Once up and running, Project Liberty will be among the first commercial scale biorefineries  in the U.S. to use a cellulosic feedstock.

POET and DSM also plan to replicate the new technology at more than two dozen other POET ethanol plants around the country. That would bring the joint venture’s total U.S. capacity to 1 billion gallons. In the context of total U.S. fuel consumption it’s not a particularly large figure, but it’s certainly nothing to laugh at given that POET is just one of any number of companies jumping into the U.S. biofuel market with the encouragement of the Obama Administration.

U.S. Navy get the last laugh on biofuel

If Republican politicians are is still looking for a biofuel project to laugh at, there is always algae, though they may want to take a good look at the U.S.S. Ford before they cut loose.

The U.S. Navy has been testing algae biofuel on several of its ships and aircraft, and it also has formed a test partnership with shipping giant Maersk as part of an interagency biofuel initiative formed last summer with the departments of Energy and Agriculture. Last week, the U.S.S. Ford became the first operational fleet ship in the U.S. Navy to take to the sea on an algae biofuel blend, burning through about 25,000 gallons on a run from Everett, Washington to San Diego with a performance “almost identical” to straight petroleum.

Image: Corn husk doll. License Attribution Some rights reserved by John-Morgan.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

2 responses

  1. The last laugh is on the taxpayer.  They Navy paid more than $2,500 a barrel for that fuel just burned in the U.S.S. Ford.  But that’s okay because oil may go up to $150 a barrel–right?  Corn ethanol is barely break-even in energy, and cellulosic ethanol takes 3 to 5 times as much energy to render into ethanol than corn, and that is why Range Fuels, Vinod Khosla’s signature biofuels effort and recipient of Obama’s first loan guarantee from the USDA, just went bankrupt without ever producing a drop of this fuel.  Cello imploded in fraud and scandal over this same folly in 2009.  It takes way more energy to make cellulosic ethanol than exists in the final fuel product.  This administration’s alternative fuels program is a very expensive way to teach Americans the unyielding laws of thermodynamics, while lining the pockets of crony investors with taxpayer money.

  2. Cliff Claven is right: the military is paying through the nose for biofuel. But since when did the Pentagon have to pinch pennies? It would be nice, some day, if the country could have a sober discussion about energy policy that wasn’t constantly clouded by pipe dreams and hyperbole.

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