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Less Energy, Less Water, More Ethanol…

July 5, 2010


Less Energy, Less Water, More Ethanol... the trend in American ethanol production. In recently released research from Dr. Steffen Mueller from the University of Illinois at Chicago, production of ethanol at the nation's dry mills has seen dramatic improvements in efficiencies. By way of background, dry mill ethanol production accounts for nearly 90% of all U.S. ethanol production. The process, predominantly fueled by natural gas, yields both ethanol as well as coproducts such as livestock feed and corn oil. Dr. Mueller's research covered 66% of the nations >150 dry mills and shows dramatic improvements in ethanol production efficiency since 2001. Among the key findings were:
  • Thermal energy use was less than 26,000 BTU/gallon on average, a reduction of 28 percent compared to 2001 data
  • Electricity use was reduced by 32 percent compared to 2001 data
  • Ethanol yields per bushel processed improved 5.3 percent since 2001
  • Total water use was 2.72 gallons per gallon of ethanol produced, down significantly from previous estimates
Why is this important? Well, first of all it demonstrates to ethanol's naysayers that this a dynamic industry constantly seeking ways to improve. Second, it further undermines claims that ethanol is worse for the environment than gasoline. This research, taken together with new data from Purdue University on the indirect land use change impacts of corn ethanol, show a much different picture than either the State of California or the U.S. EPA would have you believe about corn ethanol. These studies, if properly included in modeling of ethanol's carbon footprint, would dramatically improve those findings. For instance, if both Dr. Mueller's research and that of Purdue University were included in California's Low Carbon Fuels Standard, corn-based ethanol would qualify as a low carbon fuel under this program for a number of years. As it stands, corn-based ethanol is shut out of the California market beginning as early as 2012. That penalizes California drivers as there are no other widely available low carbon fuels, but that is the subject of a separate post. Also of interest in Dr. Mueller's research are these factoids:
  • Approximately 30 percent of all respondents produce corn oil in addition to livestock feed, known colloquially as distillers grains (in both dry and wet form).
  • The average corn draw circle for respondents was 47.1 miles, demonstrating that a large portion of all corn used in ethanol production is sourced locally.
  • Ethanol distribution from the facilities responding breaks down as follows: 25 percent by truck, 3 by ship or barge, and 72 percent by rail.
All of this research, while painting an incredible picture of innovation, is already out of date. This data is all from 2008. And in American ethanol, two years can be a lifetime.