DuPont-Danisco JV Breaks Ground for Biofuels Facility; Corn Residue and Switchgrass for Feedstock

Jose Michael

The DuPont-Danisco cellulosic ethanol joint venture (earlier post), DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol LLC (DDCE), has broken ground for its first pilot-scale biorefinery and state-of-the-art biofuels research and development facility in Vonore, Tenn.

The joint venture has partnered with the University of Tennessee Research Foundation, through Genera Energy LLC, to develop the pilot facility and the agronomic supply chain for switchgrass in Tennessee. The facility design will incorporate the flexibility to operate on two different non-food biomass feedstocks—corn stover, cobs and fiber; and switchgrass—for production into ethanol. It is expected to be operational in 2009.

Speaking at the Platts 3rd Annual Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels conference in Chicago several days before the ground breaking, Joseph R. Skurla, President of DDCE, said that feedstock was going to be a major issue for the nascent cellulosic biorefinery industry.

[with] the technology resolved and the capex managed, the question is what is the true cost of a bone dry ton of biomass to a plant owner who has to deal with market price revenue...We need to think about the oil industry in this respect. Are we going to have integrated producers, or will we have refineries. At this point, it becomes an interesting economic question.

—Joseph Skurla

Skurla said that DDCE was looking at a feedstock solution for the cornbelt states, and one for the rest of the states surrounding the corn belt—the “belt around the corn belt.” DDCE’s go-to-market strategy for the corn belt is to sell the dry mill industry an add-on unit to process cob and fiber into ethanol.

However, he said, the total market potential for corn residue is limited. Looking outside the cornbelt, DDCE has determined that switchgrass is the most likely crop to develop.

The successful cellulosic ethanol technology and provider is the one that provides the most flexible technology to address the most types of biomass.

—Joseph Skurla

Skurla said that DDCE could break even with a feedstock cost of $75 per bone dry ton. While the biorefinery has the potential to produce more complex molecules in the future, for now DDCE is only focused on cellulosic ethanol. However, echoing other speakers at the Platt’s conference, he noted that there were similarities between the cellulosic biofuels industry today, and the nascent petroleum industry of the 19th century, the primary product of which was kerosene.

I believe that this is the beginning of a very complex and exciting industry that i think will mirror the petrochemical industry. I'm sure that there will be more complex molecules that will be developed through these technologies. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. I’m not sure where the market is on peak oil right now. When that tipping point occurs, we’ll see an awful lot of change.

—Joseph Skurla

The integration of the DDCE partners’ individual technology platforms combines:

  • A differentiated pretreatment process developed by DuPont through its collaboration with the US Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) that allows for reduced capital costs. The process is a proprietary mild alkaline process that allows for lower cost of capital than other pretreatments. Work is ongoing to optimize this pretreatment technology for other cellulosic feedstocks.

  • Enzyme technologies and production platforms enabling high biomass-to-sugars conversion rates developed by Genencor, a division of Danisco. Genencor has developed enzyme complexes that deliver a 30-fold decrease in enzyme costs.

  • A proprietary ethanologen, also developed through the DuPont-NREL collaboration, based on Zymomonas mobilis. This ethanologen has the ability to convert sugars contained in the feedstock into high yields of ethanol with fewer byproducts.

  • The companies’ joint engineering capabilities in process integration and facility design.

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