June 1, 2010

Corn ethanol plants using less energy while producing more ethanol per bushel

Corn ethanol plants continue to cut their energy use while at the same time producing more ethanol per bushel of corn, the Nebraska Corn Board said in a news release today.

The board made the comments after reviewing a national study conducted by the Energy Resources Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago and published in the scientific journal Biotechnology Letters.

“This underscores the importance of using current data when it comes to estimating the life cycle analysis of ethanol production,” said the Nebraska Corn Board’s Randy Klein. “Using outdated data just doesn’t work, nor does the assumption that today’s estimates will be valid tomorrow. The ethanol industry continues to develop, which is why one cannot label today’s ethanol industry as mature.”

The study, conducted by Dr. Steffen Mueller, examined energy use and ethanol output for dry mill ethanol facilities. More than 85 percent of the ethanol produced in the U.S. comes from dry mill facilities.

The findings may prove useful to state and federal energy policy makers studying the pros and cons of fuels based on their "full life-cycle" – the total energy needed to create a fuel compared to its energy output, the greenhouse gases emitted during production, the water used in production, and other factors, according to a news release from the university.

"Policy makers rightfully pay attention to life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of fuels," Mueller said in the release. "Biofuel refineries, including corn ethanol plants, are in a rapid innovation phase."

For the study, the researchers surveyed 90 of the 150 dry mill ethanol plants operating during 2008. Results were compared to a 2001 survey conducted by BBI International on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 2001, ethanol plants used an average of 36,000 Btu of thermal energy and 1.09 kWh of electrical energy, per gallon of ethanol. They also produced 2.64 gallons of ethanol per bushel.

Ethanol plants in 2008 used an average of 25,859 Btu of thermal energy and 0.74 kWh of electricity per gallon of ethanol produced – that’s 28 and 32 percent less than 2001, respectively. Ethanol per bushel of corn, meanwhile, increased 5.3 percent to 2.78 gallons per bushel.

According to the survey, many older dry mill ethanol plants installed energy efficiency retrofits during that time period.

“Like corn farmers, who continuously strive to produce more corn with fewer inputs, ethanol plants get more efficient and productive over time,” Klein said. “Regulations and fuel standards should not be implemented without taking that into consideration.”

The survey also showed that a dry mill corn ethanol plant in 2008 produced 5.3 pounds of dried distillers grains and 2.15 pounds of wet distillers grains per gallon of ethanol produced. On a per bushel basis, that is 20.7 pounds of total distillers grains produced per bushel of corn converted into ethanol.

Ethanol plants also, on average, sourced corn within a 47-mile radius from the plant.


  1. I believe that other studies of the ethanol industry have come to this same conclusion. So all the evidence points to the fact that ethanol has and still is becoming more efficient as time goes by. At the same time all the evidence suggests that oil is becoming less efficient as the sources of easy to get to oil are used up.

  2. @Mus302 - You are right. It seems study after study shows ethanol production getting more advanced. Corn production, too. Add them together and the advances are significant over time. Here's a link to another good study on the subject: http://nebraskacorn.blogspot.com/2009/01/university-report-slams-corn-ethanol.html