American farmers harvest 80 million acres of corn each autumn. The corn stover usually left on a hewn field can be processed into a renewable transportation fuel called bioethanol. | Image courtesy of POET

Each autumn, there is enough material scattered across 80 million acres of harvested cornfields in the United States to produce a renewable transportation fuel that could improve energy security and create economic opportunity for rural Americans. This includes hundreds of jobs at a bioethanol plant near Emmetsville, Iowa.

By 2022, South Dakota-based biofuel producer POET intends to produce 3.5 billion gallons of bioethanol from wood, grass and agricultural biomass. The $105 million loan guarantee they received from the Energy Department to develop Project LIBERTY – one of the nation’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants – puts them well on their way.

Termed agricultural biomass in the biofuel industry and regarded as refuse by farmers, corn cobs, leaves and stalks, called corn stover, typically remain on hewn fields to prevent soil erosion and conserve soil nutrients. With the emergence of biofuel producers, farmers can collect a portion of the dross as biomass and then sell it as feedstock for processing cellulosic ethanol.

POET estimates that the Emmetsville plant will create 240 jobs at the facility with a greater local economic impact near $14 million – a figure that only includes new revenue for farmers selling biomass rather than the revenue for businesses and workers hired by farmers to collect and transport the biomass to collection points. Tractor-trailer operators, farm equipment distributors and agricultural laborers, to name a few, all benefit from the emerging bioethanol market in rural America from a product previously left on the fields as waste.

Upon completion in 2013, the Project LIBERTY facility will produce 25 million gallons of ethanol annually, enough fuel to be energy self-reliant while also powering POET’s adjacent grain-based ethanol plant, which already produces 55 gallons of ethanol each year.

Project LIBERTY represents one of many steps being taken as POET and the Energy Department make broad-scale deployment of cellulosic ethanol a reality. POET has plans to integrate the process used for Project LIBERTY into the company’s other 27 grain-ethanol plants to help them reach their 3.5 billion gallon goal.