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What are Ethanol Plants?

By Samantha G. Dias
Updated May 17, 2024
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While ethanol is an alcohol used in alcoholic drinks, it is also used as a biofuel, which means that it is a fuel derived from biological materials like corn, rather than the very old biological materials used in fossil fuels. Ethanol fuel is often derived from corn starch and is often used as a gasoline additive. Ethanol plants are the facilities where ethanol fuel is created and extensively processed before being transported for sale elsewhere.

"Ethanol" is the chemical name for ethyl alcohol (CH3CH2OH). It is blended with gasoline because it extends volume and boosts octane levels. While corn is a common source of ethanol, ethanol plants can transform other agricultural or biomass products, including fast-growing switchgrasses, sugarcane, wood, and paper, into fuel. Using sophisticated equipment and complicated wet or dry milling processes, these biorefineries convert the carbohydrates in these various substances into glucose or cellulose, which is then fermented into ethanol.

Typically, ethanol plants are located near large corn fields, making it economically advantageous to obtain the corn necessary for the ethanol production process. These plants tend to be landlocked, so their location often makes transporting the ethanol across great distances both costly and logistically difficult. Larger ethanol plants, which have a production capacity exceeding 80 million gallons (approximately 303 million L), are sometimes located on the water so that they can ship ethanol cargoes using barges instead of trains and trucks. Despite government mandates in several nations that ethanol production and distribution be increased annually to fight climate change, some economists think significant manufacturing and transportation costs will probably impede ethanol’s growth as a widely used fuel. Green engineers in this sector of the renewable energy industry are studying the feasibility of constructing ethanol pipelines to carry the fuel and effectively eliminate these concerns.

Supporters of expanding ethanol fuel use believe that, when compared to gasoline, this biofuel offers a substantial net energy gain and even cuts both automotive exhaust and green house gas emissions. They highlight how the byproducts of ethanol manufacturing are not wasted because resulting syrups and meal are used as feed for livestock and because carbon dioxide released during fermentation is contained and repurposed in the production of such things as dry ice and carbonated beverages. Some ethanol proponents also claim that it offers greater energy security because it reduces dependence on oil imported from other countries.

Some opponents of ethanol use argue that this fuel source is both less energy efficient and more volatile than gasoline. They also doubt ethanol’s eco-friendliness, suggesting that ethanol may have deleterious effects on the environment by actually increasing ground-level ozone emissions, creating smog pollution, and encouraging destruction of farms through harmful land-use practices. In addition, critics warn that the industry’s dependence on corn is precarious in that poor farming and harvesting seasons caused by unfavorable weather conditions will result in tighter corn supply and sudden price increases. Above all, opponents of ethanol say that using corn for fuel rather than food in recent years has exacerbated the global hunger crisis, especially in developing nations. They illustrate this point by pointing out that it takes 26.1 pounds (11.84 kg) of corn to yield a single gallon (3.78 L) of ethanol fuel and implying that it would be more humane to use these large amounts of corn as food instead.

While most people might think that using ethanol as an automotive fuel is a relatively new phenomenon, it has actually been used for this purpose in the United States and elsewhere for over a century. Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T was actually capable of running on either gasoline or renewable, alcohol-based fuels. In a sense, it was a precursor to the modern flex fuel vehicle (FFV), which are able to run on an 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline blend called E-85. An increasing number of countries are pursuing ethanol production in response to declining oil and gas reserves, escalating fuel costs, and growing consumer demand for alternative fuel vehicles.

The largest and most efficient national ethanol fuel industry in the world can be found in Brazil, where 90 percent of new cars sold are capable of using a mix of 95% ethanol and 5% water as fuel. Brazilian ethanol is made from sugar cane. Brazil and the United States produce the majority of the world’s supply of ethanol among over 500 ethanol plants in the two nations.

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Discussion Comments
By Soulfox — On Dec 05, 2014

@Soulfox -- But isn't that the case with just about anything? Remember when companies started switching from cane sugar to corn syrup to sweeten soft drinks? The price of corn went up as a result. What happened? Farmers adapted and more corn was grown to meet the new demand.

That's just a basic, economic function. Things will sort themselves out eventually. Meanwhile, those areas that are primarily agricultural have really benefited from the biofuel industry. Believe it.

By Terrificli — On Dec 05, 2014

@Markerrag -- All of that demand for ethanol has helped farmers, to be sure, but consumers have been hurt a little bit in the process. A lot of rising food prices, for example, are directly related to ethanol production.

Why? You've got farmers growing corn for ethanol production rather than human consumption and that has driven up the selling price of that crop. Also, you've got farmers cutting back on crops that aren't good for ethanol production and that means the supply of those crops has dropped and prices have risen accordingly.

That's not to say ethanol production is a bad idea. There are just consequences that come along with ethanol being so much in demand.

By Markerrag — On Dec 04, 2014

The ever increasing demand for ethanol has been a boon for farmers. The ones that were having trouble making ends meet have found they can grow plants (usually corn) suitable for ethanol and sell those for a lot of money.

In some ways, the ethanol industry has saved agriculture in some areas of the nation.

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