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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Piping in the plant is painted to indicate what is in the pipes. Yellow pipes carry chemicals, red pipes are 120-psi steam, silver pipes are process lines with 185° F liquids and green pipes carry clean water. Leaking or ruptured pipes can be hazardous to emergency responders, so caution should be exercised in response to leaks. Floor grates are located throughout the process area with sump pumps to route ethanol spills back into the process. Dryers in the Energy Center building that are used to dry grain are powered by natural gas and produce temperatures of 800° to 900° F during normal operations. Thermal oxidizers in the same building produce temperatures up to 1,600° F. Thermal oxidizers are used to burn off exhaust from the drying process to prevent odor. Steam is also a byproduct of the thermal oxidizer process. CO2 and heat are only byproducts of the ethanol plant operation that are released into the atmosphere. Production of ethanol produces approximately 21% less CO2 than the production of gasoline.

Emergency responders with ethanol plants in their jurisdictions may want to become acquainted with management and safety personnel at the plants. Knowledge of the characteristics of ethanol and other hazardous materials at the facility could also be helpful. Learn the plant layout and type of fire protection equipment available. Understand the production process for ethanol and know where hazardous materials and areas are located at the facility. Proper knowledge and pre-planning of the facility can make responding to an emergency safer and more efficient.

Thanks to Bridget Smale of Advanced Bio Energy corporate office, Fairmont Plant Manager Grant Johanson and Fairmont Plant Safety Officer Megan Williams for their assistance in making the plant tour possible and during the tour itself.

ROBERT BURKE, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland Baltimore. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be contacted at robert.burke@att.net.