Jeff Broin calls it “the greatest story never told.”
“In the long term, bioethanol can be a carbon sink,” he tells The CEO Magazine. “It can be 100 percent cleaner than gasoline. The truth is, it’s a major solution.”
As the Founder and CEO of bioethanol manufacturer POET, Broin and his team have already made a significant difference in lowering the carbon of the planet.
“Nearly 14 billion gallons of bioethanol (53 billion liters) was consumed last year, just in the United States,” he says.
Today, we have the technology to ramp up production of bioethanol and co-products using existing cropland around the world. That’s exciting.
And it’s a product that is currently 46 percent lower carbon than gasoline, a figure POET aims to increase to 70 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
“That’s our guarantee, but I believe we can beat that,” he continues. “Hopefully it’s 2040.”
Broin is confident that bioprocessing can “fuel and feed the world.”
“The agricultural potential of the world is virtually untapped,” he says. “Today, we have the technology to ramp up production of bioethanol and co-products using existing cropland around the world. That’s exciting.”
From humble beginnings
In founding POET (or its precursor, Broin Companies) in 1987, Broin began producing corn-based bioethanol, what he says in simple terms is “the first real competitor to gasoline in the history of the world.”
“I grew up on a farm and we had dairy cattle, hogs, a lot of land and extra corn — a lot of extra corn,” he says. It was the 1980s — “a very difficult time on the farm.”
“The government was paying farmers to set aside 20 percent of their land to grow weeds on it,” he says. “That really bothered my father.”
It also got Broin’s father thinking.
“He thought that if we could turn crops into bioethanol, we could create demand long term and not simply set aside land to grow nothing on, which doesn’t make any sense. We need to use the productive land on this planet,” he says.
“That’s how we learned the technology,” he explains.
By the time he had finished his studies, the opportunity to acquire a bankrupt bioethanol plant in South Dakota had presented itself.
“So I moved to South Dakota, a place I’d never been, at the age of 22 to operate it,” he says.
Bigger than their farm plant, but at 3.8 million liters, small by today’s standards — the first step was to rebuild it.
We saw this as a high-octane, low-carbon energy source, a cleaner product, and a better quality product than gasoline.
“The technology was inoperable, but we knew enough to make it operable and profitable. Then I knew it had to grow,” he says.
Within two years, Broin had tripled the size of the plant.
“Others came to us because it was an exciting new industry at the time,” he recalls. “Corn was oversupplied, grain prices were below the cost of production. Farmers were going bankrupt all over the country.”
Broin was soon designing and building plants for others, and taking on farmers as investors.
“There was this oversupply of grain in the world that we really needed to find a use for,” he says. “And we also needed better, cleaner energy. We saw this as a high-octane, low-carbon energy source, a cleaner product, and a better quality product than gasoline. So we started building plants to produce it. And the bioethanol market grew with us.”
Assuming a leading position in the industry has come naturally to POET, Broin says.
“We have always led in all areas; we actually strive to lead, in technology, the way we manage our people as a team, the products we produce,” he explains. “Our goals are to have the highest quality products and the best customer service.”
But given the nature of his industry, there’s always a political tightrope to walk, and politics is an unavoidable part of the business.
“We realized that we needed to have a presence in Washington D.C. where policy decisions are made,” he says. “So, we brought the industry together and created organizations to advocate for market access and biofuel policies at the state, federal and international level. We also opened up our own DC office.”
Yet, they remain what he calls “the underdog of the fuels industry.”
“This has been a real David versus Goliath fight and misinformation has been a significant challenge for us, not just in the United States, but worldwide,” he says. “It’s an uphill battle, but we work at it every day. We’re up against a much larger, better-funded competitor.”
Layers of renewability
In 2007, Broin removed his name from the business.
“The vision and mission wasn’t about me, it was about our team members and their will to change the world and create a better set of circumstances for future generations,” he says.
The name POET was chosen — a reflection of how, like music, or poetry, the Earth was made to thrive in natural rhythm. Neil Armstrong was the guest speaker at the name change event, where only a handful of the company’s employees knew about the major announcement that was in store.
“He was very selective about the events he spoke at, but he came to ours because he was excited about what we were doing,” Broin says.
The POET brand, he reflects, has evolved organically and served the company well through its significant growth.
“We started from humble beginnings and, over time, have become the world’s largest biofuel company,” he says. “We’re fueling and feeding the world.”
We started from humble beginnings and, over time, have become the world’s largest biofuel company.
Each year, working with more than 40,000 farmers across the United States, the company buys a billion bushels of corn — a figure that represents seven percent of the United States corn crop.
“We take the starch, which is a low-value waste product, and create a high-value liquid transportation fuel,” he explains. That billion bushels converts into 11.4 billion liters of bioethanol.
But what remains — the protein, oil and fiber — doesn’t go to waste. Instead, it is transformed into feed for animals.
“We return 14 billion pounds [6.5 billion kilograms] of high protein byproduct back to animals in the US, and we also ship it to 25 countries around the world,” he says. “We’re giving livestock producers a supplement that they can add to the ration of their animals to raise their protein levels.”
A more recent innovation has been the extraction of corn oil, a percentage of which goes to biodiesel and renewable diesel fuel. “So now we’ve got biofuels as a byproduct of biofuels,” he explains. “And that’s another clean, renewable fuel for vehicles that are especially hard to decarbonize.”
There’s also the potential of sequestered CO2 using Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) pipelines that, when combined with renewable energy (hydrogen), can produce renewable methane to heat homes and power businesses. It’s one of the main areas the company is currently investing in as it powers toward its carbon reduction goals.
A wide open frontier
From a base of two original bioproducts, the company has developed a portfolio of 13 different bioproducts, many of them new to the industry. This includes the production of renewable CO2 for commercial use.
“Today we are the fastest growing CO2 company in America,” he says. The uses for POET’s captured CO2 include flash freezing of meats and frozen foods, fire suppression and carbonation of sodas and beer.
Biotechnology, he enthuses, is a wide open frontier.
Today we are the fastest growing CO2 company in America.
“When I got into this industry, it was nearly untapped,” he says. “So the opportunity was almost endless.”
A team of 65 full-time researchers are continually developing technology. A 15,000 square-foot laboratory, a bench scale facility, as well as two pilot plants (one for starch, one for cellulose), provide research and development for its 33 bioprocessing plants.
“We have worked hard to do many things,” he says. “We discovered and implemented raw starch hydrolysis, converting starch to glucose without using heat. We also have one plant that gets a significant portion of its energy from landfill gas and wood waste. We don’t release any wastewater from our plants; we also co-generate by taking process steam and running it through steam turbines to produce electricity.”
Not Going Anywhere
Despite cars being converted to batteries, Broin says the need for liquid fuels isn’t dissipating anytime soon.
“Cars and trucks with internal combustion engines aren’t going anywhere, and they should be run on low-carbon biofuel blends. In addition, there is a wide range of heavy-duty vehicles that will likely need to run on liquid fuel for decades.”
There are also other modes of transport to consider, such as ships, trains and airplanes.
“Bioethanol can be converted to sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF,” he continues. “I truly believe we will need clean, sustainable fuels in the future, so producing them — and even more of them as crop yields grow around the world — is going to be a good thing for the sustainability of the planet.”
A return to our roots
One of the key pillars of POET’s growth, Broin says, has been its location, surrounded by corn crops in the American Midwest.
“It’s critical that we’re located in the Corn Belt, where the raw material is,” he says.
The company has 33 bioprocessing facilities across Iowa, South Dakota, Michigan, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana and Missouri, and corporate offices in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Wichita, Kansas.
As well as being close to the raw material for its bioethanol, the feed that is manufactured as a byproduct can be sold back to the animals that graze the fertile soils of the region.
Biotechnology now allows us to take the starch and cellulose from crops and convert them into almost everything we get from a barrel of oil.
“In addition, the crops are taking in the carbon dioxide that’s created from the production and burning of bioethanol for fuel,” he adds. “One hundred percent of it goes back into next year’s corn plant, so even the emissions are renewable.”
Broin says it’s been a powerful lesson to see how the Earth was designed to deal with carbon.
“When we started pulling 50 million years of oil out of the ground in a hundred years, we ran into a problem,” he says. And the realization has made him resolute about the next steps in the face of climate change.
“We need to return to our roots,” he says. “We need to go back to the way we used to do things. Biotechnology now allows us to take the starch and cellulose from crops and convert them into almost everything we get from a barrel of oil.
Power of sun, soil and seed
In its sustainability report, Broin asserts the company’s belief in the power of agriculture to play a key role in solving global challenges by embracing the Earth’s inherent rhythm and harvesting energy from its surface.
“We believe in a world where farmers are the creators and innovators are the heroes,” he wrote. “Just as a poet turns ordinary words into extraordinary prose, we will continue to use the simple gifts God has provided — the sun, the soil and the seed — to cultivate a better world for generations to come.”
There is, he says, tremendous opportunity in the power of the sun, the soil and the seed — “to create the energy and many other products we need as a society.” The possibility to power the world from the surface of the Earth actually exists, and Broin argues that the agricultural potential of the world is virtually untapped.
“God gave us the most efficient solar panel that will ever exist: the leaf,” he explains. “And he also gave us the greatest battery ever created: seeds and biomass. If you keep them dry, you can store that energy indefinitely.”
The tools exist — as does underutilized land around the globe where production capacity can more than double in one or two years with the right technology.
I think the biggest difference will come when we decide we’re going to grow our way out of climate change.
“That will create much larger volumes of crops and biomass that can become the building blocks of energy that is in sync with nature,” he says.
What’s the best piece of advice that Broin has ever received during his career?
“I had a marketing professor who once told me that everything in life is a sale — even convincing your wife to marry you,” he says with a laugh.
“I think I have always had a natural vision for the future, to see a bit of what’s coming next. But I’ve had to sell that to everyone around me.
“So I’ve spent my life convincing investors, my employees, the industry, legislators and everyone around me of what I see. Sell, sell, sell what you believe in. And that is what I’ve done, and that has led POET to some great success.”
Rather than being fearful of what the future holds, Broin is full of hope.
“There is no reason to fear the future if you understand the opportunity agriculture holds for the planet.”