Today’s ethanol industry is cleaner, more efficient and more profitable than ever. And the future looks even brighter.
Vicki Duenke was not surprised when her son Travis received a blue ribbon for photography at the local county fair in July 2007. The 15-year-old’s winning photo, taken in the wake of a spring storm, captured a rainbow arcing over the family’s cornfields and seemingly coming to an end above the nearby POET Biorefining – Laddonia, Mo.
That photo did more than capture a beautiful moment; it symbolizes a new reality in the small farming community of 580 located 100 miles northwest of St. Louis. “We loved the [symbolism], because here in Laddonia, the ethanol plant has been a ‘pot of gold’ for a lot of farmers,” says Duenke, a fourth-generation farmer and Plant Accountant for POET Biorefining – Laddonia. “It’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened to our small town.”
Today’s ethanol industry has brought new jobs to communities like Laddonia across the country, as well as new markets for local corn farmers. Innovations during the past 20 years have made grain ethanol production more efficient, allowing for higher yields and lower production costs.
Clearly, the ethanol industry of today is vastly different than that of 20 years ago. And without a doubt, the same will be said for the industry of tomorrow. “Ethanol has the potential to shape all of our farming futures,” Duenke says.
THE WAY WE WERE
Jeff Broin, President and CEO of Sioux Falls, S.D.-based POET, compares modern advances in ethanol production to the evolution from the first Commodore 64 computers to today’s MacBook laptops. Today’s ethanol plants boast greater yields and energy efficiencies, thanks to better biological and engineering inputs and an optimized process design. “When this industry started 20 years ago, we had goals but didn’t know what we could attain,” he says. “We’ve been able to push the envelope much further than I would have predicted.”
That’s a long way from the first ethanol plants of the late 1970s, which borrowed their fermentation and distillation technologies from pre-existing industries including corn milling and propyl alcohol—better known as whisky makers such as Jim Beam.
“Those guys pride themselves on tradition. They’re going to make alcohol the same way their grandpappy made it. They emphasized quality and taste,” says Steve Lewis, Chief Science Officer for POET. “In the fuel alcohol industry, we became less beholden to tradition and more interested in innovation.”
During this time, advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering were enabling the development of new bio-based production techniques. “Fuel ethanol producers were able to embrace new technologies without threatening their historical ways of doing things,” Lewis says.
A decade later, ethanol plants in the ’80s had smaller production capacities, inefficient equipment, greater water and energy usage, and fewer automated controls, compared with modern plants. Lewis says this resulted in a less-efficient process, requiring eight gallons of water and 45,000 British thermal units (BTUs) to produce just one gallon of ethanol.
The production process changed dramatically in the late 1990s as research and innovation led to biological and engineering inputs optimized for ethanol. Biorefineries grew from annual production capacities of 15 million to 40 million gallons. Processes were redesigned to recycle more water and energy, and automated controls were incorporated to reduce waste.
Today, Lewis says, ethanol has hit the sweet spot on the innovation cycle where research, experience, technology and economies of scale have converged to produce high value.
Before modern ethanol advances, corn farmers like Duenke “for years had a tough time justifying planting corn,” she says. It required more-expensive inputs and more labor than other crops, yet sold for less. So Duenke and her family planted only a few fields of corn in the years before POET came to town in 2006. Last year, they harvested 60,000 bushels on 400 acres — all of which went to the ethanol plant.
A decade ago, many believed ethanol production had matured and couldn’t be further improved. The skeptics were wrong. “We’ve made tremendous strides,” Broin says. “We’ve seen some significant gains in efficiency, we continue to improve the process each year and we see no end in sight.”
Compared with 20 years ago, energy use is down almost 50 percent to 25,000 BTUs per gallon of ethanol. That’s a result of new processes, better equipment and continuous optimization, says Rod Pierson, Director of Plant Operations for POET. For example, POET’s BPX™ process has reduced consumption of natural gas, used to generate steam in the ethanol process, by converting corn starch into sugar for fermentation without cooking the mash. Improved heat exchangers allow more energy to be transferred between heating and cooling processes, and today’s larger boilers generate steam more efficiently with less wasted energy. At POET Biorefining – Chancellor, S.D., natural gas needs are being reduced even further by using alternative fuel sources such as waste wood and, soon, landfill gas to power boilers.
Water use is down from eight gallons per gallon of ethanol to less than three because energy use has decreased, Pierson adds. Lower energy needs mean less water must be heated or cooled. Today’s process also recycles more water into boilers and mixing tanks, and adds less raw water. Larger fermentation tanks, which can hold up to 700,000 gallons, can produce mashes with more consistent alcohol concentrations.
Current ethanol yields have increased 20 percent to three gallons per bushel of corn, thanks to new developments and enzymes and yeasts optimized for ethanol fermentation, Pierson says. Better control systems have automated more processes, allowing biorefineries to be operated with greater precision and efficiency, and less waste from mistakes.
“We can do a much better job of clarifying the noise of running a chemical process — converting data into knowledge and knowledge into value,” Lewis says. “In the past, our goal was just keeping the process running. Today, we are in an optimization mode, although the mechanical aspects of running a plant are still extremely important.”
Even transportation of ethanol has improved. Today’s unit trains — caravans of 100-plus railcars — transport ethanol more efficiently than the single-train cars of the past, saving energy through faster delivery, loading and unloading times.
Such efficiency gains have led to lower production costs, increased profits and reduced risk for investors and biorefineries.
The extra income from ethanol allows Laddonia farmers, like the Duenkes who recently invested in better machinery, to pay off debts and upgrade equipment. “We haven’t got to the tractor just yet, but we upgraded to a better planter and cultivator to make the farm more efficient,” Duenke says. This summer, they tacked on a long-desired twostory addition to their house, which will provide more space for their growing family of four kids, ages 2 to 15. “Ethanol has created a solid market that allows farmers like us to truly gain from planting corn,” she says.
Increased profitability for farmers is clearly an immediate benefit. But beyond that, the longer-term benefit, Pierson says, is less fossil fuel needed to make ethanol, reducing both dependence on foreign oil and contributions to global warming. “Nobody thought this was possible 10 years ago, aside from pie-in-the-sky people,” he says. “These are very big strides, and there are opportunities for more. We’re not done.”
A BRIGHT HORIZON
POET anticipates further reductions in fuel energy costs at its ethanol plants. Broin says the alternative energy sources used in Chancellor will allow the ethanol produced there to offer three times the fossil-fuel energy return of gasoline. And cellulosic ethanol, soon to be implemented at POET Biorefining – Emmetsburg, Iowa, through POET’s Project LIBERTY, is projected to offer four times the return by creating ethanol out of corn stalks and other agricultural waste.
“We’re making significant progress,” Broin says. “We’re at a two-to-one fossil-fuel net energy gain over gasoline today, we’re three-to-one at Chancellor, and we’ll be four-to-one in the near future.”
Researchers see many other avenues for improvements, such as recycling more water during the production process; replacing natural gas with renewable energy sources including woodchips or agricultural waste; transporting ethanol by pipeline instead of today’s more energy-intensive trucks and railcars; improving agricultural productivity; and producing ethanol from new feedstocks such as corn stover (the leaves and stalks of maize) and switch grass.
“I have not seen yet where we have hit a wall, where we cannot advance this process further,” Broin says. “Ethanol production seems to be a process that can improve indefinitely.”
That’s good news for Duenke, easing her worries about the future of the family farm as her son Travis prepares to carry on the tradition. “The plant provides long-term security, making sure there is a strong corn market for us to continue to produce corn at a living wage,” she says. “Ethanol offers an opportunity to stay true to our farming roots.”