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Iowa Power Fund Board Pushes Corn-Based Cellulosic Ethanol

March 14, 2009

The announcement on February 26th by the Iowa Power Fund Board to provide $14.75 million to POET, the largest ethanol company in the world, to develop cellulosic ethanol technology at its existing Emmetsburg, Iowa corn ethanol facility can be read in a couple of ways.  The proposed technology will convert corn cobs and corn fiber into ethanol.  Early estimates predict the process will increase per-acre corn ethanol production by 27%.   POET plans to expand cellulosic ethanol to all of its seven Iowa ethanol facilities and to license the technology to other ethanol producers.  On the one hand, it is good to see cellulosic ethanol technology moving forward.  This bodes well for the expansion of cellulosic ethanol into other cellulosic sources.  We could potentially be one step closer to seeing both a giant step forward toward energy independence as well as seeing a more sustainable transportation fuel system. 

But this recent development in Iowa led by the Iowa Power Fund Board and POET in no way guarantees either of these results.  In fact, there is great potential for this new technology to create considerable problems that would overshadow any advantages.  First, by including corn fiber, and not solely corn cobs, the potential exists that this project will pull this plant matter to the ethanol fuel process.  As agronomists and farmers well know, corn fiber is a vital nutritional source to maintain soil fertility.  This corn fiber also plays a considerable role in reducing soil erosion.  In creating a market for corn plant matter, farmers will be pressed all-the-more to turn to fossil fuel-based fertilizers in an attempt to try to maintain soil fertility as nutrients are removed through increased corn plant-matter harvesting and soil erosion.  Any ethanol productivity this form of cellulosic ethanol experiences will potentially be offset by the unintended increased need for fossil fuel inputs.  And that will certainly not help in achieving energy independence.

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