The Language of Ethanol

By Bob Dinneen | May 04, 2009
To be successful in today's economy, industries must capture the imagination of the public. Your wireless network must be 3G, your iPod must be "touch," your coal must be clean, and your renewable fuel must be next-generation.

But what passes for next-generation? Must it be technologies that use feedstocks other than starch or sugar? What about technologies that make already operational technologies more efficient and productive?

In Washington, the focus on the direction of the nation's renewable fuels industry is almost exclusively on advanced and cellulosic production technologies. While that focus is important, it too often crowds out the innovation that defines America's existing ethanol industry.

At ethanol biorefineries across the country, the language of ethanol technology is changing rapidly.

Fractionation is replacing grinding, separating the components of corn kernels so as to improve ethanol and distillers grains yields while reducing energy needs.

Gasification and fluidized bed reactions are taking the place of boilers and natural gas in powering biorefineries. Displacing the need for fossil fuels to power ethanol production reduces greenhouse gas emissions and improves the bottom line by removing some of the exposure to volatile energy markets.

Graywater is being substituted for groundwater. Utilizing recycled water instead of drawing up groundwater further improves ethanol's environmentally sustainable profile and reduces costs associated with the purchase of water rights.

And of course, cellulose is joining corn, sorghum, and sugar cane as a feedstock for ethanol production. Technologies such as acid hydrolysis and thermochemical conversion are turning a wide range of feedstocks such as corn cobs, wood chips and garbage into a renewable alternative to petroleum.

Ethanol 2.0 or next-generation biofuels or whatever label you wish to put on the future of American ethanol production is coming. But these technologies are not likely to be the revolutionary, pie-in-the-sky stuff that are glorified in science fiction lore. Rather, these technologies are best described as evolutionary.

Converting corn cobs, switchgrass, and wood chips into ethanol is the natural next step for American ethanol production. The technologies that will be deployed are the logical outcropping of the successful and still evolving technologies in use at nearly 200 locations across the country.

While the names of the technologies ethanol producers are developing every day may not be as catchy as those in the cell phone business, they are no less exciting or important.

Policy makers in Washington and critics of ethanol the world over would do well to learn the language of ethanol technology and appreciate the rapidly innovation nature of this industry.

The next generation of ethanol technologies is already here.

Bob Dinneen
President and CEO
Renewable Fuels Association