Little Falls, Minn. – A feasibility study could open the door to the nation’s first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant.
In May, Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative expects to complete an evaluation of building a cellulosic plant by its corn ethanol plant near Little Falls. AURI and Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Board are also supporting the study.
The locally-owned CMEC plant produces about 21 million gallons of corn ethanol annually, says Kerry Nixon, CMEC general manager. If evaluations are favorable, the plant could add a 10-million gallon facility that converts wood and other biomass to ethanol.
“For us to expand (corn-ethanol production), we would have to compete for corn with other existing plants,” Nixon says. “Since we’re in the region of lakes and trees, it makes sense for us to to look at other options.”
“Central Minnesota Ethanol has been innovative since their inception,” says Michael Sparby, AURI project director. “Given their location at the northern end of Minnesota’s corn range, they have to continue to be creative and innovative in order to grow.”
The cellulosic plant will use soft hardwoods such as poplar and aspen trees harvested in a 70-mile radius of Little Falls. Chips from green-cut trees contain about 50 percent moisure, which would be captured and used, so outside water is not needed for fermentation.
Nixon says the process may capture enough moisture to offset some of the corn ethanol plant’s needs as well.
CMEC has been producing corn ethanol since 1999.
“There are synergies here because we have the land, the power—plus the maintenance and marketing pieces are already in place,” Nixon says.
“After the preprocessing, fermentation is about the same for starch or cellulose, but the cellulosic process resolves a lot of the energy and water issues associated with ethanol.”
If CMEC decides to pursue a cellulosic plant, it will take about 16 months to complete. “Cellulosic plants are more expensive to build than starch plants, but the operational costs are cheaper,” Nixon says.”
Sparby says a cellulosic ethanol plant will “bring Minnesota to the next level of biofuels development.”