February 12, 2020

USD Alumnus and POET Research Leader Talks Innovation in Green Energy

From its humble beginnings in Scotland, South Dakota, to now one of the world’s largest producers of ethanol and other biorefined products, POET focuses on revitalizing global agriculture and providing a cleaner, more affordable alternative to fossil fuels.

Tad Hepner, one of POET’s research leaders and a University of South Dakota alumnus, said the country started thinking about how to conserve energy resources in the early 2000s, and as a result, Congress created the renewable fuel standard program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and expand the nation’s renewable fuels. 

Ethanol, a renewable fuel made from corn and other plant materials, is one additive that can be produced in large quantities and mixed with gasoline to extend the fuel supply and keep it at a reasonable price. 

POET, a family-owned company, headquartered in Sioux Falls, has 28 refineries in seven different states. Each year, an ethanol plant owned and operated by POET consumes approximately 21 million bushels of corn, produces 60 million gallons of ethanol and 178,000 tons of high-quality, nutritious animal feed, and creates approximately 40 jobs.

“Corn is only worth so much, but what POET has done is make ethanol production more effective and gives farmers a stable place to sell their grain,” Hepner said.

Hepner is a project leader on the innovation team at POET and helps manage the Yeast and Enzyme Portfolio – products that when added to milled corn make ethanol.

When he’s not in the lab, Hepner is a technology scout on the lookout to expand POET’s expertise and utilize its space more.

Growing up, Hepner was always interested science, so when he came to USD, he took classes in biology and chemistry and finished with a degree in biology.

“I didn’t always have an itch for biofuels, but as I went through college, and had opportunities to decide what I liked and didn’t, I was fascinated by green chemicals and the green industry," said Hepner. "As we see it progressing, it is way for us to participate in a better future for everyone.”