Ethanol producers look into the weeds for corn substitute

Kansas City StarApril 11, 2011 

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — This country's battle to curb oil imports is being plotted in high-tech laboratories and elite universities hunting for breakthroughs in alternative fuels.

But the frontlines in the effort to bring such fuels to market can be found in places like a working-class neighborhood in this river town, not far from where Pony Express riders saddled up to journey west.

Here in a brick and cinder-block building sit two rows of giant stainless steel kettles and equipment that are part of a $31 million experiment. The goal: Instead of using corn to make ethanol, see if it's feasible to use cellulosic fiber, particularly six-foot tall stalks of switchgrass.

The St. Joseph cellulosic pilot plant is nearing completion. After testing over the summer, it will eventually produce about 250,000 gallons of ethanol a year. That's enough to uncover any problems before larger commercial operations attempt to make billions of gallons more.

The plant joins a handful of other projects around the country racing to find the best way to produce cellulosic ethanol by figuring out the right technology, chemistry and cellulose feedstock.

ICM Inc. of Colwich, Kan., which is behind the St. Joseph operation, plans to be one of the winners. The company has had a hand in the design of more than half the corn ethanol plants in the country and believes it has a technically and economically feasible design for cellulosic plants.

"We don't necessarily want to be the first," said Jon Licklider, the pilot plant's supervisor. "But we want to be the first to make it profitable."

Biofuels, now mainly corn ethanol and biodiesel, are at a turning point. Cellulosic ethanol is a biofuel produced from wood, grasses, corn stalks and other non-edible parts of plants. The fiber would be a cheap and plentiful feedstock for ethanol.

"There's plenty of this stuff around, and at a low price," said Brooke Coleman of the Advanced Ethanol Council, an affiliate of the Renewable Fuels Association.

Corn ethanol this year will provide about 12 billion gallons of fuel, or enough to displace about 5 percent of gasoline demand. No other alternative fuel comes close.

But corn ethanol has been attacked for contributing to higher food prices. Its supporters say the charge is unfounded.

Regardless, the biofuels industry has long supported next-generation ethanol plants that would use cellulose.

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