Chemical giant Dow has entered into a supply agreement with biomass refiner “New Energy Blue “to develop bioplastics from corn stover. Described as a ‘first-of-its-kind’ agreement in North America, New Energy Blue will create bio-based ethylene for Dow’s US Gulf Coast facilities to produce renewable plastics. Dow expects to use the bio-based ethylene in recyclable packaging, transportation, and footwear applications.
New Energy Blue’s stated goal is to bring “new energy with an agricultural origin to replace the old energy with a petroleum origin.” This lofty agenda starts with its new biomass refinery in Mason City, Iowa, where groundbreaking is slated for the spring of 2024, and 2G biofuel and lignin production is expected to begin before the end of 2025.
Under the terms of the agreement, Dow is supporting the design of New Energy Freedom, the name of the new facility in Mason City, Iowa, that is expected to process 275,000 tons of corn stover per year and produce commercial quantities of second-generation ethanol and clean lignin. Nearly half of the ethanol will be turned into biobased ethylene feedstock for Dow products.
New Energy Blue first announced plans to construct the cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Iowa in July of 2021. The company actually acquired the exclusive rights to bio-conversion technology developed by Inbicon, a Danish green-energy company. New Energy Blue initially planned to develop its first commercial-scale facility in North Dakota but settled on Iowa due primarily to lower feedstock supplies near the North Dakota site, according to Thomas Corle, chairman and CEO or new Energy Blue.
The patented reactor system and patented infrared technology planned for the New Energy Freedom plant are expected to help overcome some of the operational issues past cellulosic biorefineries faced. Corle explained that the infrared technology enables the plant to analyze the specific makeup of each biomass bale that enters the plant, noting that the quality of biomass can vary significantly from one field to another. “You have to know what’s in that biomass coming in, and you’ve got to have a system that is going to be flexible and forgiving on what is coming in [to the plant] and be able to adjust,” Corle said.
One reason the Inbicon technology the company has licensed is so different is that it wasn’t initially designed to produce ethanol, Corle said. Rather, it was designed to produce clean lignin. The process is very clean, he added, noting it doesn’t use acid or other harsh inputs, which allows the technology to produce clean water at the end of the process. New Energy Blue says its cellulosic ethanol can be blended with gasoline or be further refined into jet fuel or biobased ethylene, the foundation of a range of products including plant-based plastics.
Corle has said New Energy Blue plans to develop a total of five biorefineries across the Midwest over the next five years, including the Mason City site. “115 million acres of corn stalks and wheat straw await us each year in the American Midwest alone,” explains Corle, which he says is enough to supply some 500 biorefineries in the regions. The five planned projects are expected to displace of 1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. One million tons is about how much CO2 enters the atmosphere every year from 200,000 gasoline-burning cars.
Because US farmers’ grain yield per acre is among the world’s highest, their stover density is correspondingly high, Dow said. By selling their excess stover for biomass refining, the company suggested, farmers could reap an excellent second income from the same crop while using farming practices that increase carbon retention in the soil. According to New Energy Blue, biomass aggregation alone can infuse $20-40 million annually into the local farm community from each refinery operation. (Sources: Eco-Plastics, Biomass Magazine, Reuters)