Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company takes next step
BENSON -- Ethanol's promise has been to replace some of the foreign oil we use in our vehicles with renewable biomass raised on America's farm lands.
Its potential is that some day, carbon-neutral biomass could also power the production of ethanol itself.
That day arrived April 8 at the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson, according to Bill Lee, general manager.
In a partnership with Frontline BioEnergy of Ames, Iowa, the farmer-owned ethanol facility began replacing some of the natural gas it uses to power its ethanol production with a synthetic gas produced from biomass.
A 30-foot tall "gasifier" uses a thermo-chemical process to produce the synthetic gas -- a mixture of carbon monoxide, methane and hydrogen -- from wood scraps. The gas is piped to a special burner that operates much like a flexible-fuel vehicle.
It can run on either the synthetic gas or natural gas, or any blend of the two to fire one of the ethanol plant's steam boilers.
The gasifier has been operating successfully since its startup, which is part of an initial testing period for the new technology, according to Lee. It is producing about 10 percent of the energy needed for plant operations.
Eventually, Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company intends to produce enough synthetic gas to replace 90 percent of the natural gas it now uses, Lee said.
In the not too distant future, the company also intends to use corn cobs gleaned from the fields of area farms to replace scrap wood as the biomass feedstock for the gasifier.
The gasifier has already proven its ability to use corn cobs as readily as wood to produce the synthetic gas. The challenge is to develop the infrastructure to collect, store and value the corn cobs, said Lee. Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company has obtained nearly $250,000 in grant funds toward developing that infrastructure.
When that day arrives, the ethanol company will have created a new industry in Swift County -- estimated at $13 million a year. That's roughly the minimum amount of money now required to buy natural gas from Canada that will instead be cycled within the local economy, according to Lee.
Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company is not the first ethanol plant or industry in Minnesota to turn to biomass to help power operations and reduce its carbon footprint.
But Lee said one major advantage of the Frontline technology is that it is designed to be retrofitted with existing steam boilers that use natural gas. That opens up opportunities for FrontLine to bring this technology to other ethanol plants in the country, as well as many other industrial facilities.
The project is driven by economics, said Lee. Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company projects that it will save money by using corn cobs and agricultural residue in place of natural gas. Next to corn, natural gas is the largest input cost in the production of ethanol.
The company also believes that the reduced carbon footprint made possible by using a biomass energy source will prove valuable as well. Lee said the company expects the U.S. to eventually follow the lead of much of the industrial world and adopt a system that offers incentives for reducing the carbon footprint.
Most important, the project is very much in keeping with Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company's goal of finding ways to add value to local resources, said Lee.
He said the investment was also made to put the company in a better position to manage its future. "We want to find ways to get better, not bigger,'' said Lee.
The Frontline system could represent a stepping stone technology toward cellulosic ethanol, he said. The FrontLine biomass gasifiers will be able to produce synthesis gas which could be converted to ethanol through catalytic or biological methods, according to Frontline.