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Ethanol producer hopes to create biomass market

Gene Fynboh of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company holds a handful of newly harvested corn cobs from a field south of Priam in mid-October. Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company demonstrated it is possible to harvest corn cobs along with the yellow grain under difficult conditions. Tribune file photo

BENSON -- Weather conditions made it very difficult to harvest this year's corn crop, but they didn't stop the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company from gleaning corn cobs along with the yellow grain from roughly 2,500 acres.

There were "no show stoppers'' to the Benson-based cooperative's first-ever efforts to harvest corn cobs as a biomass fuel, according to Gene Fynboh, a member of the co-op's board of directors and coordinator for the harvest. Fynboh and others met Thursday in Benson to assess the corn cob harvest, and to plan their next steps.

"My impression is that it's still worth pursuing here,'' said Fynboh.

"We're committed to making this work,'' said Bill Lee, general manager of Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company, as discussions on the harvest continued.

The company is working with the University of Minnesota, West Central Research and Outreach Center of Morris to demonstrate that corn cobs can be harvested as a biomass fuel.

It hopes to use corn cobs to replace much of the natural gas it now uses in producing more than 40 million gallons of ethanol each year at its Benson facility.

The cooperative wants to reduce its fuel costs, add value to its farmers' corn, and keep money in the local economy that is otherwise being spent on foreign natural gas supplies, according to Fynboh and Lee.

"I've always felt that it's important that people be able to live on the resources they have,'' said Fynboh.

The company installed a gasifier that is currently using wood wastes to produce a synthetic gas to replace some of the natural gas. The cooperative is expecting to receive an air emissions permit from the state by the start of the new year so that it can begin testing the use of corn cobs as the primary fuel instead, according to Lee.

Until Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company can actually begin using corn cobs as fuel, it is impossible to determine the economics of corn cobs as a fuel source.

This year's corn cob harvest was a trial run to see what kinds of challenges and costs exist in harvesting and storing the cobs. In particular, this first harvest was an opportunity to evaluate the merits of two different types of harvesting equipment.

Both units proved that they can do the job, but the harvest also showed improvements are needed, according to participants at the meeting.

The biggest issue, said Lee, is the need to create a market for corn cobs so that farmers will be willing to invest in equipment. Farmers said they would be willing to invest in equipment if they can be assured of a multiyear market and an appropriate price for the cobs.

"The fuel will find you if you pay. The cobs will show up,'' said Lonnie Fosso, a Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company farmer who participated in the test harvest.

Lee noted that the company is not the only entity that can help develop a local biomass market. Fibrominn, the first poultry litter-fired power plant in the U.S., already presents a market in Benson for biomass as fuel.

The University of Minnesota-Morris is also a new buyer for biomass as fuel to help heat its buildings. Joel Tallaksen, project coordinator for the biomass gasification project on the campus, said the unit was designed for corn stover. He said they are now discovering that corn cobs are probably the better fuel. Cobs have a higher energy content per pound, are easier to store and handle, and are less important to soil fertility, he pointed out.

And without a question, there are lots of them. Lee said there are enough corn cobs raised within a reasonable distance of the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company plant to someday replace all of the natural gas now used there.

He also cautioned that there is a ways to go before it is known if it is economically desirable to rely on corn cobs. The gasifier now producing power for Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company operations was designed to use any type of biomass fuel. "We're not done being creative about what we're putting through the gasifier,'' said Lee.