Ethanol Production Methods More Efficient Now: Study

May 27, 2010

( -- A new University of Illinois at Chicago study of facilities that produce most of the nation's ethanol found that the energy needed to make a gallon of the corn-based fuel decreased on average by about 30 percent within the past decade.

Steffen Mueller, principal research economist at UIC's Energy Resources Center, surveyed the nation's 150 "dry mill" plants -- the type that produce about 85 percent of the ethanol for energy use -- between November 2009 and January 2010.

The findings may prove useful to state and federal energy policy makers studying the pros and cons of fuels based on their "full life-cycle" -- the total energy needed to create a fuel compared to its energy output, the greenhouse gases emitted during production, the water used in production, and other factors.

"Policy makers rightfully pay attention to life cycle of fuels," said Mueller. " refineries, including plants, are in a rapid innovation phase."

He said his survey shows that adoption of new technologies reduces energy production needs.

"The challenge for policy makers will be to keep up with these developments so that regulations are meaningful and reflect state-of-the-art industry practices," he said.

Mueller received 90 responses -- about 60 percent of the plants contacted. But those responding produce about 66 percent of the 35 billion or so liters of ethanol distilled yearly in the U.S.

Mueller said the high response should provide a sound statistical basis for policy makers, environmental groups, and researchers who will help design new energy-efficient and eco-friendly methods.

Mueller found plants use 28 percent less thermal energy -- mostly natural gas, but some coal, biomass and landfill gas -- and 32 percent less electricity to turn corn into ethanol. The savings may be due to more efficient equipment being used by new plants and older ones undergoing retrofits, he said.

The 24-question survey was developed with ethanol industry input. Senior or operations plant managers at all 150 U.S. dry mill plants operating during 2008 were contacted. The web-based survey was created by the University of Illinois Survey Research Laboratory, which also collected the data.

Mueller's findings were compared to the last comprehensive survey taken in 2001, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since that time there has been a nearly 10-fold increase in the number of U.S. ethanol plants.

The findings are published online in the May 15 issue of Biotechnology Letters.

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1 / 5 (4) May 27, 2010
"Ethanol Production Methods More Efficient Now: Study"

Ethanol still contain 1/2 the BTUs per pound of gasoline. Put ethanol in your tank, go fewer miles for more money.

Stupid corn lobby. Stupid Iowa.
5 / 5 (2) May 28, 2010
BTUs are a measure of the fuels ability to boil water at room temp and pressure, but in an internal combustion engine, the fuel-air mixture is compressed and then exploded at extremely high temp and pressure to do work pushing down on a piston. The compression ratio dominates the efficiency of an IC engine. Google "scania diesel-ethanol" to get an idea of what an engine designed for ethanol is like. In addition, the fuel can be vaporized by a preheater rather than injected as a fine mist of liquid droplets before exploding to further increase the efficiency. We could end up with a vehicle with 20% better mileage than diesel with a relatively cheap engine. But first we will have to learn to stop drinking the oil company kool-aid and get to the next step of widely available sustainable ethanol from non-food sources.
not rated yet May 28, 2010
Thanks to merlinson, I learned something new today:

Seems custom-built ethanol "diesels" achieve thermal efficiency in excess of 40% (!!), compared to max efficiency of ~25% for the best gasoline engines. So even if you need twice the fuel on pure energy content basis, yet you're using it almost twice as efficiently, then on balance your cost and distance traveled wouldn't be that different.

Seems like a nice incremental step forward. Of course, what would get me really excited, is a practical direct ethanol fuel cell (that in theory could raise efficiency upward of 60%.) There's still a long way to go, however:

2 / 5 (4) May 28, 2010
Regardless of its potential as a vehicle fuel, ethanol is an important industrial chemical and making it with less money and energy will always be a positive development. Also, many of the efficiency gains that have been achieved and are in development are just as beneficial for non-corn sourced ethanol. Some of them are even helpful in butanol production which is a much better vehicle fuel for several reasons and can also be produced by fermenting biomass but is further behind in the R&D process.

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