A Closer Look at Ethanol Production from Corn as a Gasoline Extender

Abengoa Bioenergy Corp.'s ethanol plant near York, Nebraska.

Abengoa Bioenergy Corp.’s ethanol plant near York, Nebraska.

In past decades the mix of products being used in U.S. gasoline engines has undergone considerable change with ethanol-blended gasoline becoming the norm. The oil-gas-fuel supply mix is still in flux with the production of now abundant oil and gas from shale-oil production in the U.S. and lower oil prices worldwide. While good from the U.S. balance of payments and energy security points of view, this shale oil and Canadian tar-sand production comes at increasing environmental costs.  With present, although perhaps temporary, relatively inexpensive oil, do we still need to use corn-produced alcohol to extend our national fuel supply? Is this corn better diverted towards use as human food, rather than now being dominantly used as animal feed and ethanol production? It is commonly argued that all of this is feed corn, as if corn good enough to be fed to livestock is unsuitable for human use. This argument does not hold water. If it is safe to feed to our livestock, we human’s can eat it too, although likely as more traditionally ground products as in corn meal, grits, corn flour and the like, rather than as boiled sweet corn. If you wanted to grow a more palatable corn strain on the same land, there is no logical reason not to do so. In the southeast since pre-Colonial times we have been a corn-consuming culture and have historically consumed many forms of this plant over the centuries. Whether hand ground between two rocks or produced in the most modern plants available, these corns are editable products and their use is more based on fashion and advertising than their real utility as human food. After the Energy Crisis had somewhat abated about 10 years ago, environmentalist debated the economic/environmental impact of corn production for use as fuel stocks. While the issue is still argued today and can change depending on the price of oil at the moment, the general opinion came down to be about a wash. That is considering the energy costs of producing corn and converting it to alcohol and the consequential depletion of ground water and environmental problems caused by agricultural run-off,  the total cash and environmental costs of producing ethanol was about equal to the benefits gained by its use.  Even at the time ethanol production from corn was considered as a stop-gap measure, until more energy/environmentally friendly methods of bio-fuel production could be developed. Political factors figured strongly in the argument with politicians from the corn-producing states strongly pressing their case that ethanol should remain a part of the U.S.’s gasoline formulation which effectively supports corn prices and keeps their voters and agribusiness supporters happy. These bills passed, and they would be very difficult to reverse. Technological advances have resulted in both increased yields from the land that is planted and the developments of ethanol producing plants that are based on  breaking down cellulosic fibers in grasses, stems and woods. No new corn-based ethanol producing plants are being built. New ethanol plants are based on using cellulose which may even be derived from municipal city waste as well as stems remaining from harvesting agricultural crops or even grass clippings. Because of the increased bulk of these grassy and woody feedstocks, the cellulose plants are typically smaller and located close to their sources of raw materials. They have the additional advantage that they are energy producers, as a byproduct of the process, lignin, is used to meet the plant’s energy needs and often generates a surplus of electricity to sell back to the power grid.

Taking a look at a corn-based ethanol plant

Although I have toured several  distilleries  in the Southeastern U.S., my first opportunity to visit an industrial-production ethanol plant was when I was in Seward, Nebraska, to cover their 4th of July festivities which usually draws about 30,000 people. While scouting the area for my story, I found Abengoa Bioenergy Corp.’s ethanol plant on U.S. 31, about 40 miles west of Seward near York. At a glance, the plant had the appearence of an oil refinery, but was much smaller than those I was accustomed to seeing in Texas. I correctly assumed that this was an ethanol-producing plant, and asked Plant Manager Mitch Stuhr, if I could get a tour. He politely referred me to a company spokesman in Washington D.C., and facilitated an exchange of E-mails. This was not as warm a reception as I received when I joined tourists to be escorted through the Jack Daniel and George Dickel distilleries in Tennessee.

George Dickel Distillery, Cascade Hollow, Tennessee.

George Dickel Distillery, Cascade Hollow, Tennessee.

Background information released by the company spokesman revealed that the plant was owned by a Spanish company that was chartered in 1941 that is presently ranked at about fifth in the U.S. in ethanol production. The York plant is a medium-sized corn-ethanol facility with a production of about 55,000,000 gallons a year. Since its start in 1994, it has shipped ethanol, distillers’ grain for animal feed, an oil extract used as a bio-fuel component and captured the carbon dioxide resulting from fermentation. The ethanol production is 99.9 percent alcohol to which gasoline is added to satisfy the Federal requirement that this commercial chemical product could not be utilized for human consumption. This denatured alcohol has been predominantly shipped in railroad tank cars.  Although it will burn, it is much less dangerous than shale oil because of the alcohol’s decreased volatility.  The York plant does have a distiller’s license, but has not sold products into this market for over a decade. Unlike distillers in Tennessee, the York plant does not give out free samples, although I could use a gallon or so to make Cherry Bounce from the fruit from my native black cherry trees.

The over 230 alcohol-producing plants throughout the country are committed to maintain as green a footprint as possible. Process waters are cleaned and recycled in nearly closed systems to reduce the amount of water required and return what little discharge there is to the environment in as clean a state as possible. Being involved as a component in the world’s energy production, the plants themselves are engineered to have as small an energy demand on the environment as possible and some cellulose plants even produce excess electricity that can go back into the national grid.

Do we still need ethanol produced from corn?

The realistic answer to this question is whether the particular economics of the moment can practically demonstrate this need or not, the U.S. is fairly well stuck with corn ethanol production for the next two decades, or until the present production facilities wear out. When they become too costly to maintain vs. product profit margin, they will be shut down, as would any industrial facility. If there are any parallels from the oil industry, there are some dangerously ancient oil refineries that are still going strong which were constructed in the 1950s. The industry trend would be to decrease the relative amounts of corn-based ethanol in favor of cellulose-produced ethanol over the next half century. The amount of ethanol produced from all sources will be driven by the usage of gasoline-based internal combustion engines in vehicles and small motors.  Gasoline engines of all sizes will be under increased competition from electric cars, non-gasoline engines, hydrogen-powered cars,  or fuel-cell vehicles or technologies that have yet to be developed. Significant inroads into the gasoline engine market have been made by more efficient Diesel engines and to a lesser extent by propane and natural gas powered internal-combustion engines. Although receiving a lot of media attention, electric and hybrid vehicle sales have plummeted due to lower prices for gasoline and their relatively expensive initial costs, even with subsidies. The future is murky, but gasoline and alcohol-supplemented gasolines would appear to still be in the world’s future for some decades to come.

From feeding cars to feeding people 

The push towards higher yields to supply ethanol needs is a positive gain that can be largely transferred to the production of  corn for human consumption. These gains added to reduced corn-ethanol demand will make more corn available on the world market to help meet the needs of a growing population. Some critical points are if this production increase can be maintained while simultaneously seeking to control the run-offs of excess nutrients into the nation’s rivers, eliminating the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico and retaining the productivity of nation’s soils.  Balancing all of these demands is possible, but creates real challenges for the present and future generations.

Seward, Nebraska’s 4th of July

If you are curious about what I was doing in Seward, Nebraska, you can read the previous post on this blog or Google “Hovey Seward Video” and this will bring up four videos from which to select. These are  Explosive Guerrilla Marketing, my 30-min. stage performance at the Band Shell, an 8-minute preview of the performance, and an overview of the events and parade that took place on the town square.

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