Ethanol — Part 2: The Manufacturing Facility

Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is the alcohol used to create beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages. Ethanol is also produced as an alternative fuel to gasoline. In the U.S., more than 9 billion gallons of ethanol fuel is produced annually. Ethanol is...


Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is the alcohol used to create beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages. Ethanol is also produced as an alternative fuel to gasoline. In the U.S., more than 9 billion gallons of ethanol fuel is produced annually. Ethanol is typically produced from corn or sugarcane. The U.S...


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Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is the alcohol used to create beer, wine and other alcoholic beverages. Ethanol is also produced as an alternative fuel to gasoline. In the U.S., more than 9 billion gallons of ethanol fuel is produced annually. Ethanol is typically produced from corn or sugarcane. The U.S. is the world's largest producer of ethanol and primarily uses corn. Ethanol fuel has a few disadvantages; it has a lower energy density than gasoline, so a tank of ethanol fuel will not go as far as a tank of gasoline, and ethanol fuel can be more difficult to start in very cold temperatures.

Ethanol fuel is also used as an oxygenate additive to gasoline. In the past, the chemical methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) was used for this purpose, but MTBE is hazardous and harmful to the environment. Ethanol fuel can provide the same function without its negative effects to the environment. Oxygenating gasoline boosts the octane quality, enhances combustion and reduces carbon monoxide (CO) emissions.

The Nebraska community of Fairmont is home to Advanced Bio Energy's ethanol facility, which produces 110 million gallons of ethanol from corn each year. As a byproduct of ethanol production, the plant also produces 320,000 tons of Distiller's Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGS) each year. DDGS is a high-value livestock feed primarily for cattle, but also used for poultry and hogs. Three pounds of corn produces one pound of alcohol, one pound of carbon dioxide (CO2), released into the atmosphere, and one pound of distiller's grain.

Advanced Bio Energy's Fairmont Ethanol Plant sits on 260 acres just west of the village of Fairmont and began operations in October 2007. The plant operates with 42 employees 24/7, 365 days a year with 10 days of scheduled down time for maintenance. Fairmont is a community of 691 residents, according to the 2000 census, at the intersection of U.S. Highways 6 and 81 with Interstate 80 just 15 minutes to the north. The facility is in the heart of Nebraska corn country, with a large percentage of irrigated crops to counter the effects of drought. This location allows for continued maintenance of the corn supply needed to operate the plant.

Fairmont has an all-volunteer fire department with about 30 members under the leadership of Chief Bobby Hoeft, Assistant/Deputy Chief Jeff Neiman and Assistant Chief Lonnie Taylor. The Fairmont Volunteer Fire Department operates one pumper, two tankers, a brush/rescue truck and an ambulance. A new tanker was delivered in late 2009 and a new pumper will be delivered in the spring of 2010.

Ethanol plants, whether in Nebraska or any other state, vary in size, but the process of producing ethanol from corn is much the same. If you were to visit more than one ethanol plant, you would find them similar in layout and the equipment used to produce ethanol. I was most impressed by the safety features built into the facility and the safety attitude of the employees. Additionally, the plant was very clean. Cleanliness is necessary for the fermentation process to work properly. The entire facility is sprinklered and it has its own 3,500-gpm fire pump, half-million-gallon water storage tank, foam monitors, hydrants and foam supply. Advanced Bio Energy does not have a fire brigade of its own and relies totally on the Fairmont Volunteer Fire Department and other local volunteer fire departments through mutual aid for fire protection and other emergency responses.

Ethanol production begins with the delivery of the raw material — corn — to the facility. Much of it is trucked in from local producers. The day I visited the Fairmont facility, 18-wheelers were lined up for several blocks to empty their loads of corn into the enclosed receiving area at the plant. This same facility is used to load and ship the distiller's grain. Raw grain is trucked into the facility and distiller's grain is shipped from the facility by rail.

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