DuPont’s $500 Million Biofuel Bet Expected to Pay Off

DuPont Co. said a $500 million bet on producing ethanol from corn crop waste, singled out by activist investor Nelson Peltz as lavish, will pay off as companies such as Procter & Gamble Co. add to demand for renewable chemicals and fuels.

“This plant will make money,” William Feehery, president of the industrial biosciences unit, said in an interview at the World Conference on Fabric & Home Care in Montreux, Switzerland. “We put a lot of time and R&D money into this.”

The third-largest U.S. chemical company is investing in building a biorefinery in Nevada, Iowa, that will be completed in the coming months, and on research and development for enzymes to break down corn waste into ethanol. DuPont will supply cellulosic ethanol to Procter & Gamble’s Tide Coldwater liquid laundry detergent, the first commercial scaleup of its kind.

Peltz singled out the cellulosic ethanol plant as an example of the Wilmington, Delaware-based company’s “speculative and expensive corporate science projects” that have “destroyed shareholder value.” DuPont has as much as $4 billion in excess corporate costs that can be cut, the activist investor said.

Peltz first disclosed his Trian Fund Management LP’s interest in the company last year. Since then, Dupont Chief Executive Officer Ellen Kullman has announced cuts in administration, a share buyback worth $5 billion and a spinoff the company’s performance chemicals unit, a commodity business that has more volatile earnings than other segments.

Renewables Uncertainty

How quickly the plan makes a return on investment depends on whether U.S. policy makers cut the amount of renewable fuels that are blended into the the nation’s gasoline supply, said James Collins, who heads three DuPont units: Industrial Biosciences, Performance Polymers and Packaging & Industrial Polymers.

“There’s been some debate about it recently,” he said.

Uncertainty means potential licencees, who will provide income by buying DuPont’s cellulosic ethanol technology to use in their own cellulosic plants, are “sitting on the sidelines,” he said.

The company is still a number of years away from being able to license as many as five new future plants, though the P&G contract shows the product will have additional industrial uses outside of gasoline replacement, for which it was originally developed. The Tide Coldwater detergent has sales of $100 million in North America.

Copyright 2014 Bloomberg

Lead image: Biofuel via Shutterstock

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