Friday, March 14, 2008

Dallas Texas Ethanol Terminal

Within the debate over the pros and cons of ethanol, a lot of thought has to go into its transportation. Because of the phase separation that occurs with ethanol in gasoline, the possibility occurs for it to mix with small amounts of water in a gasoline pipeline and carry particulate matter. This is undesired and has eliminated the possibility of transporting ethanol through conventional gasoline pipelines. On the plus side, this has led to a railroad renaissance and produced talk of expanding rail capacity or upgrading existing lines to meet the need for transport. May 28th will see a huge step in upgrading the nation's rail systems due to ethanol's effect. Texas, and particularly the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is a huge potential market for ethanol. Providing cheap and efficient transport into that area would be a huge benefit to Midwest ethanol plants and a good way to jump-start ethanol usage in the South while cellulosic technologies come online in the area. US Development Group, in alliance with Union Pacific, has built a state of the art ethanol terminal in the Dallas area, set to open May 28th, which will be a major jumping off point for ethanol to end up in that city or to be trucked to other major areas in the state.
The company indicates that this state-of-the-art terminal was built specifically so that ethanol trains would not add any congestion to existing rail lines. Also, the terminal is capable of quickly offloading an 84-car unit train of ethanol with dedicated pipelines to truck terminals that will allow for quick and easy distribution of the fuel to gas stations. In recent weeks with the astronomical rise of first crude oil and now gasoline, and the relatively flat price increases in ethanol, blending 10% ethanol into gasoline will not only be a huge windfall for gasoline blenders but hopefully also for consumers. This is because since so much ethanol currently exists, the price per gallon is nearly a dollar cheaper than gasoline. Once blending occurs, retailers should offer at least 10 to 15 cents per gallon off of a gallon of E10 gasoline to offset the energy density decrease in ethanol and because their fuel is at least that much cheaper to produce.
With this efficient connection to the South the United States will see a much more widespread use of ethanol. With it will come more people enjoying the fuel but also a renewed need to work quickly to solve some of the problems that exist in the ethanol process before the fuel becomes more widespread and produced in higher quantities.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ethanol Facts

Instead of a news article, I thought I'd educate a little bit on some of the facts of ethanol in the United States as it currently stands for corn-based ethanol:

1) One bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol and 17-18 pounds of DDGS (dried distillers grains).

2) One acre of corn produces approx. 500 gallons of ethanol -- enough to fuel six cars for a year on E10.

3) As of 2006, approximately 30% of all motor fuels in the US had some ethanol blended into it.

4) Argonne National Laboratory concluded a study last year that found ethanol reduces greenhouse gases 35% - 46% over gasoline derived fuels.

5) Every 100 BTUs (British Thermal Units) of energy used to produce ethanol becomes 167 BTUs of energy in the form of ethanol.
(The reason this can occur is that the light energy gained from the sun during the growth of the plant is not included in the calculation -- an ethanol plant is approximately 38% efficient in recovering chemical energy).

6) Although an ethanol plant may be 38% efficient, our power plants generate electricity at an amazing 30% efficiency.

7) The United States is composed of 1.9 billion acres of land; 450 million is categorized as crop land and 580 million acres is pasture.

8) Hardware needed to make a vehicle into a flex-fuel capable car is $100-$200.

9) As of 2006 there were 4-5 million E85 capable cars in the United States (which is 2-3% of US car fleet).

10) An E85 blend of gasoline will decrease VOCs (volatile organic compounds) by 15%, carbon monoxide by 40%, nitrous oxide by 10%, and sulfate emissions by 80%. All of these compounds are greenhouse gases or smog related compounds. (This information from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality).


Monday, March 10, 2008


In what could become a huge advance for near-term cellulosic ethanol production goals, two professors from the University of Maryland are offering their solution to the issue of how to extract the sugars needed to make ethanol from cellulosic material. The claim is that a bacteria, isolated in marsh land near the Chesapeake Bay and names Sacharophagus degradans, is able to degrade cellulosic and chitinous materials such as corn stover, newspapers, or crab exoskeletons. The result is a fluid rich in sugars used by the yeast to produce ethanol. This advance would mean that conversion of simple-cellulosic feedstocks would be possible at a relatively low cost. The two professors have already started a company known as Zymetis to bring this conversion technology to market by the end of the year.
This is very good news and a great step in the right direction. Before celebrating, however, it would be nice to see some of the data on this microbe. First, it is hard to say how quickly the bug is able to break down the cellulosic material -- if it takes weeks such to break down some old newspaper then the costs saved using trash might be negated by the much larger tanks needed to digest the material in. Second, it is hard to say what the bacteria is converting the cellulose into -- for example, if it turns it all into glucose then yeast will love this bacteria like a PB&J. However, if it produces xylose or a glucose derivative that yeast are less efficient at converting to ethanol then there may be a problem. Finally, it is hard to say how much of the corn stover or newspaper can be degraded. In other words, if only half is being broken down then you will have a large slurry mess to deal with afterwords.
This technology is separate also from a more mid to long term technology known as gasification/ethanol production. Although gasification is said to be used in Coskata/GM's ethanol production schemes, this technology will be available in 2010 at the very earliest and there are still several problems to work out of the system between now and then. The benefits in gasification, if it can be engineered to work, is that cellulosic/chitinous material would not be the only materials utilized in such a system. Unlike Zymetis' method, gasification would allow the use of all material including lignin, which is seen in high proportions in woody plants.
Either way, the benefits of Zymetis' technology are that it will continue to bridge the gap between corn-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol, which will hopefully take pressure off using only grain-based plant material in ethanol production and might serve to incorporate more cellulosic feedstocks such as switchgrass or trash that promise to make ethanol even more attractable because of lower GHG emissions.

For more info: