November 13, 2017

Ethanol Simplified

Q: Are we really using food to make fuel?

A: No. The corn used to make ethanol is not the sweet corn humans typically eat. Some 99% of the corn grown in Nebraska is field corn, which is used primarily for livestock feed and ethanol production. Field corn is rarely used for human food, but through processing it is transformed into fuel, meat, milk, eggs and food ingredients. ONE BUSHEL OF FIELD CORN CREATES FUEL, FEED, FOOD AND MORE!

Renewable Fuel- The starch from a bushel of corn produces about three gallons of clean-burning, high octane ethanol. Some ethanol plants are also producing renewable diesel fuel for trucks and heavy equipment.

Animal Feed- Once the starch is removed to make ethanol, the remaining components of the corn kernel are used to make high-quality animal feed. This feed goes to beef cattle, dairy cows, pigs and poultry to create nutritious meat, milk and eggs.

Food Ingredients- Ethanol plants also produce corn oil (used in hundreds of food products) and carbon dioxide used in bottling and carbonated beverages.

Green Chemicals- Ethanol plants are developing technology to create environmentally-friendly chemicals that replace petroleum-based products.

Q: How much water does it take to make ethanol? 

A: An ethanol plant uses about three gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol. And that water is used with incredible—and increasing—efficiency. Most of the water in an ethanol plant is recycled and reused within the plant for additional production, cooling and other processes. A significant percentage of the water leaves the ethanol plant in the form of distillers grains (livestock feed). That water is taken up by the animals, supplementing their water requirements. The rest of the water re-enters the atmosphere in the form of steam from the boilers and other equipment.

Q: Is the ethanol industry subsidized? 

A: There are no federal or state programs that provide direct payments or subsidies to ethanol producers. Congress passed the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) in 2005 and 2007 requiring a specific volume of transportation fuel in the United States fuel supply to contain renewable fuels such as corn ethanol, biodiesel, and ethanol made from cellulosic sources such as cornstalks, switchgrass and wood waste. The RFS was passed in order to provide market access for domestically produced renewable fuels in a fossil fuel-dominated marketplace, reduce our reliance on imported oil and spur economic development—especially in rural areas of the United States. All of those goals continue to be achieved through the RFS.

Q: Does ethanol improve air quality?

A: When the American Lung Association recommends the use of renewable fuel such as American Ethanol, you can be pretty sure that improved air quality is part of the equation. Toxic emissions and particulate matter from vehicle exhaust are a huge threat to human health—and the use of clean-burning American Ethanol has a significant positive effect on air quality. “Every time you pull up to the pump, you have the opportunity to make a choice for cleaner air,” said Angela Tin, vice president for environmental health for the American Lung Association. “Choosing fuel with American Ethanol is a simple and easy way to help reduce pollution and make the air safer and healthier for you and your family.” According to a 2017 report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) associated with corn-based ethanol are about 43% lower than gasoline when measured on an energy equivalent basis. The Alternative Fuels Data Center at the U.S. Department of Energy states: “Using ethanol as a vehicle fuel has measurable greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions benefits compared with using gasoline. Carbon dioxide (CO2) released when ethanol is used in vehicles is offset by the CO2 captured when crops used to make the ethanol are grown.”

Q: Does making ethanol result in more energy? 

A: A 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture focused on calculating the “energy balance” of ethanol production—the amount of energy required to produce ethanol compared to the amount of energy that results when that ethanol is produced. The study found, on average, ethanol production resulted in 2.1 BTU to 2.3 BTU of ethanol for every 1 BTU of energy input. In some areas, the energy balance ratio was 4:1! This study took into account the entire cycle of ethanol production—from the energy used to plant, fertilize and harvest corn; transport the corn to the ethanol plant; and process the corn into ethanol. Importantly, the study also provided an energy credit for the distillers grains (livestock feed) produced during the ethanol process. Only the starch in the kernel is used to make ethanol, so it makes sense that ethanol plants get credit for creating more than one product from the corn they use. Ethanol plants are continually squeezing even more ethanol out of each kernel, reducing water and energy use, and creating more products from a bushel of corn. And corn farmers are continuing to grow more corn per acre, with less water and less fertilizer. So we can surmise that the energy balance of ethanol production will only continue to improve.

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