POET’s task of securing 700 tons of cellulosic biomass per day of operation got a big boost this week from a $6.85 million funding increase to an existing grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

This is the first of two funding increases from DOE to help establish a market for corn cobs. The second, expected next year, is estimated to provide an additional $13.15 million. Cobs are the feedstock for POET’s effort to commercialize cellulosic ethanol, Project LIBERTY, which will be built in Emmetsburg, IA. The grant increases will play a key role in establishing corn cobs as a viable commodity and setting the stage for corn cob harvesting across the U.S.

The additional funds will be used to develop the feedstock infrastructure for cellulosic ethanol production. POET will work with equipment manufacturers to help speed the process of getting cob-harvesting technology into fields around Emmetsburg and will incentivize early adopters of cob harvesting.

“DOE has shown an incredible commitment to speeding the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol,” POET CEO Jeff Broin said. “With this grant, we’ll be able to help farmers take advantage of this new revenue stream while helping our nation realize all the benefits of second-generation ethanol.”

Project LIBERTY is a 25 million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant that will be attached to the current grain ethanol plant in Emmetsburg. Operations are scheduled to begin in late 2011. POET has operated a pilot-scale cellulosic ethanol plant <http://www.poet.com/news/showRelease.asp?id=147&year=2009&categoryid=0> in Scotland, SD, since November 2008.

The Department of Energy has been a major supporter of Project LIBERTY. The two grant increases will bring the total financial commitment from DOE to $100 million <http://www.poet.com/news/showRelease.asp?id=135&year=2008&categoryid=0>. Project LIBERTY, which includes building the commercial plant, helping farmers and equipment manufacturers develop a feedstock infrastructure and other costs, will total about $250 million.

Fourteen farmers in the Emmetsburg area will run cob harvests this year with prototype equipment from a variety of manufacturers. POET will develop and test the feedstock infrastructure for cob pick-up, delivery and storage, which can be a model for replication at other biomass facilities.

Corn cobs are both economical and environmentally friendly as a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol. A USDA study shows cobs contain 2-3% of the measured nutrients of the above-ground corn plant; DOE has issued a finding of “No Significant Impact” for Project LIBERTY; and the first year of a multi-year study by Iowa State University for POET showed that removing corn cobs from fields appears to have no substantial impact on soil nutrient content.

Additionally, the Draft Regulatory Impact Analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency touts the economic benefit of using corn stover, which includes corn cobs, in making cellulosic ethanol.

“… Corn stover was chosen as the most economical agricultural feedstock to be used to produce ethanol in order to meet the 16 [billion gallon] EISA (Energy Independence and Security Act) cellulosic biofuel requirement.”

View a documentary about POET’s pilot cellulosic ethanol plant.