The production of ethanol or ethyl alcohol from starch or sugar-based feedstocks is among man’s earliest ventures into value-added processing. Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell were among the first to recognize that the plentiful sugars found in plants could be easily and inexpensively converted into clean-burning, renewable alcohol fuels.

While the concept is the same today as it was then, the ethanol industry has come a long way since those days. Today, sophisticated biorefineries use state-of-the-art technologies to convert grains, beverage and food waste, cellulosic biomass and other feedstocks into high-octane ethanol. Take a virtual tour of an ethanol plant and learn about the production process. (Courtesy of the former Patriot Renewable Fuels plant, now owed by CHS)

Roughly 90% of the grain ethanol produced today comes from the dry milling process, with the remaining 10% coming from wet mills.  The main difference between the two is in the initial treatment of the grain.

Dry Mill Ethanol Process

In dry milling, the entire grain kernel is first ground into “meal,” then slurried with water to form a “mash.” Enzymes are added to the mash to convert the starch to sugar. The mash is cooked, then cooled and transferred to fermenters.  After fermentation, the resulting “beer” is separated from the remaining “stillage.” The ethanol is then distilled and dehydrated, then blended with about 2% denaturant (such as gasoline) to render it undrinkable.  It is then ready for shipment.

The stillage is sent through a centrifuge that separates the solids from the solubles. These co-products eventually become distillers grains, as well as corn distillers oil.  For more information co-products and current production, visit our co-products page.

On average, 1 bushel of corn (56 pounds) processed by a dry mill ethanol bio-refinery produces:

  • 2.85 gallons denatured ethanol
  • 16.5 pounds of distillers grains animal feed (10% moisture)
  • 0.65 pounds of corn distillers oil
  • 17 pounds of biogenic carbon dioxide

 

Dry Mill Product Yields

Wet Mill Ethanol Process

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In wet milling, the grain is first separated into its basic components through soaking.  After steeping, the slurry is processed through grinders to separate the corn germ. The remaining fiber, gluten and starch components are further segregated. The gluten component (protein) is filtered and dried to produce animal feed.  The remaining starch can then be fermented into ethanol, using a process similar to the dry mill process.

Ethanol from Cellulosic Biomass

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This process flow diagram shows the basic steps in production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass. Note that there are a variety of options for pretreatment and other steps in the process and that several technologies combine two or all three of the hydrolysis and fermentation steps within the shaded box. Chart courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Lab.