DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE) opened a new biorefinery in Vonore, Tenn., last year. | Photo courtesy of DDCE

Energy crops and agricultural residue, like corncobs and stover, are becoming part of rural America’s energy future. Unlike the more common biofuel derived from corn, these are non-food/feed based cellulosic feedstocks, and the energy content of the biomass makes it ideal for converting to sustainable fuel.

Last January in Vonore, Tenn., DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol (DDCE) opened a new biorefinery with the goal of producing at large-scale biofuel from cellulosic feedstock, beginning with corncobs and stover and moving to switchgrass.

DDCE, along with partners University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, Genera Energy and the state of Tennessee are working to establish a several-thousand-acre switchgrass crop for the biorefinery.

The crop—planted in 2008—will reach maturity later this year. DDCE plans on running these switchcrop through the Vonore biorefining facility to test the process on a large scale. DDCE is planning to build a commercial scale biorefinery in the Midwest for corn stover, and when the technology is ready for switchgrass, will also begin large-scale production of fuel from that crop.

“The science is ready, and the process works. Now, in Tennessee, we are scaling it up so that we can produce ethanol in 50-million-gallon facilities,” says Jennifer Hutchins, director of communication at DDCE. “The goal is to deliver technology to produce cellulosic ethanol that will compete with gasoline.”

Creating value from farm to tank

DDCE’s partnership with the University of Tennessee and Genera Energy came about through the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative, a farm-to-fuel business plan. Genera Energy establishes and supports the contracted farmers growing the crops.

There are currently around 2,600 acres of switchgrass growing on more than 30 farms within 50 miles of the Vonore facility under this initiative, generating economic opportunities for the region. DDCE and Genera hope within the next few years, the area will begin to see the economic impact on rural development.

"The world should be watching what we're doing in Tennessee, because it is an example of how we will create value across the entire supply chain - from the farm to the tank,” says Joe Skurla, CEO of DDCE. “These projects require collaboration between farmers, crop developers, technology experts, producers and fuel suppliers to deliver investment-grade solutions and low-cost, sustainable transportation fuel for consumers."

The Department of Energy's Role in the University of Tennessee Biofuels Initiative (UTBI):

  • Approximately $5 million awarded to Genera Energy for switchgrass harvest, collection, storage and delivery to the Vonore facility.
  • Approximately $2.3 million awarded to the University of Tennessee for establishment of an additional 3,000 acres of improved variety switchgrass.
  • Support of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in collecting environmental sustainability data associated with the UTBI switchgrass trials.

From operators to management, jobs will be created

DDCE, which today employs nearly 30 people, has been expanding its workforce and expects to contribute to rural economic development and jobs growth as the industry evolves.

“As we develop technology, we add people. We are adding jobs in both our demonstration facility in Tennessee—operators, engineers and technicians—and employees at our headquarters in Illinois in commercial development and management,” Hutchins says. “These are all green jobs.”

DDCE plans to license its technologies and will also engage in building commercial scale biorefineries, which will employ 50-60 people each.

“There’s opportunity not just for direct job growth, but to contribute to growth across many sectors, from research to farming to equipment manufacturing and biomass logistics,” Hutchins says. “As the industry evolves, we hope it will contribute to rural economic development.”