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Brent Erickson: Cellulosic Ethanol Production Is On the Verge

April 27, 2018
In 2005, Congress created the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which mandates that a certain volume of renewable fuel be blended into the fuel supply. The program was established to promote the growing demand for renewable fuels, while simultaneously propelling the country’s energy independence and reducing our greenhouse emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces this program by issuing compliance credits, known as RINs (“Renewable Identification Numbers”), to those that blend fuels.

Since the start of the program, corn has been one of the primary feedstocks to create ethanol, a renewable fuel that can be blended to comply with the RFS and generate RINs. However, a good portion of the feedstock called the pericarp – a fiber that makes up 8-10% of a corn kernel’s weight – was not being fully utilized for ethanol production. For the most part, biorefineries produced ethanol by breaking down starch from corn, separating the pericarp as bran or leaving it in the distillers’ grains used for animal feed. Understanding the potential this fiber holds to increase ethanol production, however, biorefineries began developing processes for turning cellulose and hemicellulose found in pericarp into ethanol – specifically cellulosic ethanol.

And in 2014, the EPA issued a rule allowing the pericarp fiber to be used to produce cellulosic ethanol, thus qualifying it to generate RINs.

As Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial and Environmental Section, outlines in a piece for the Industrial Biotechnology Journal, since this rule “the increase in production is measurable.”
Cellulosic ethanol production more than doubled from 3.8 million gallons in 2016 to 10 million gallons in 2017, as more corn kernel ethanol production came online.

In fact, several companies have already identified processes and technologies for producing cellulosic ethanol within existing biorefinery capacities, including POET, DuPont, Edeniq, ICM and Novozymes.

Before these fuel producers can use this cellulosic ethanol to generate RINs, however, the EPA must approve their production process. Cellulosic ethanol or not, all companies looking to produce biofuel compliant with the RFS must first obtain approval through this process. EPA has established an Efficient Producer Petition process that has sped up approval times for ethanol producers who are expanding capacity.

Erickson goes on to note that refineries could “increase cellulosic ethanol production by tens of millions of gallons” if approvals for these corn kernel fiber conversion processes are granted at the same pace as the Efficient Producer Petitions for biorefinery expansions, which usually takes 30 days or less.

Erickson concludes that swift approvals for cellulosic ethanol production are “vital” to reigniting investment in cellulosic ethanol production, which would put us back on track in meeting the goals outlined in the RFS.
Speed in approving new cellulosic biofuel capacity is vital to the industry. The shortfall in cellulosic biofuel production—compared to the goals set by Congress—has empowered EPA to waive required volumes of all types of renewable fuels from the RFS program. At the same time, EPA's waivers have sent a chilling signal to potential investors in the industry.

Starch ethanol producers have begun to recognize the opportunity to create value-added co-products through this technology—corn oil, concentrated protein animal feed, and cellulosic ethanol. Speedy approvals of corn kernel cellulosic pathways and Part 80 registrations for biorefineries will increase the industry's confidence in the RFS program and encourage additional investment.

To read the full piece, click here (behind paywall).