Iowa Survey Ranks Top 10 Biofuels Innovations

Iowa Survey Ranks Top 10 Biofuels Innovations

Iowa Renewable Fuels Association survey highlights the biofuels industry's "Top 10 Efficiency and Technology Innovations of the Past Decade."

As a part of its 10th anniversary celebration, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association has released a list of the ethanol and biodiesel industry's Top 10 efficiency and technology innovations of the past decade. The Top 10 list was compiled through a survey of IRFA's membership.

TOP 10 INNOVATIONS: As part of its 10th anniversary, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association has put together a list of the ethanol and biodiesel industry's top 10 innovations. Today's renewable fuels industry is not your father's gasohol plant.

"Much has been written about the growth of ethanol and biodiesel production since the first Renewable Fuel Standard was passed in 2005, but the untold success story is the corresponding efficiency and technology innovations," says IRFA vice president Rick Schwarck. He is chief executive officer of Absolute Energy, an ethanol plant at St. Ansgar, Iowa. "This Top 10 list tells a small piece of this story of breakthroughs that have enabled the renewable fuels industry to persevere in challenging economic times while still producing low cost, high performance motor fuel. Clearly today's renewable fuels industry is not your father's gasohol plant."

U.S. Renewable Fuels Industry's Top 10

Efficiency and Technology Innovations Over Past Decade

  1. Corn Production Gains (in both yield and total bushels): In 2001 the U.S. harvested 9.5 billion bushels of corn from 69 million acres, for a yield of 138 bushels per acre. Ten years later in 2011, 12.4 billion bushels of corn were harvested from 84 million acres, resulting in 147 bushels per acre yield. This increased corn output has allowed U.S. ethanol production to grow from 1.77 billion gallons in 2001 to 13.9 billion gallons in 2011while not taking corn away from food, feed, export or industrial uses.
  2. Ethanol Yield Increases: Since 2001, the average ethanol yield in the U.S. has increased 3% to 5% to roughly 2.8 gallons per bushel. Without this improvement it would have taken an additional 250 million bushels of corn to generate 2011's ethanol production. The improved yield has been fueled by ethanol producers' investments in enhanced enzymes such as alpha amylase, which improves the breakdown of starch in corn to maximize the conversion to ethanol.  Similarly, ethanol production has also seen huge improvements in yeast varieties. Today's ethanol plants use yeast that has been engineered specifically for the ethanol industry to withstand high concentrations of alcohol, high temperatures and infections. There are even strains of yeast today that secrete their own enzymes to enhance ethanol production.
  3. Water Utilization Improvements: Over the past decade, water use in dry mill ethanol plants has dropped from 4.7 to 2.72 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced. This positive change has been made possible by improved chemicals, or anti-scaling agents, which allow ethanol plants to recycle an increased amount of cooling water as process water prior to discharging. Gasoline production requires much more water per gallon.
  4. Energy Efficiency Advancements: Compared to 2001, ethanol production today requires 28% less thermal energy (from natural gas or coal) per gallon and 32% less electricity per gallon. One breakthrough was the advent of low cook fermentation.  Instead of heating slurry tanks to 230 degrees a new enzyme allows starch to be converted to sugars at only 175 degrees, dramatically reducing the need for steam heat. Additional factors contributing to improved energy efficiency for ethanol production include the increased use of heat exchangers, which allow plants to reuse heat from the production process, and advanced process controls which enable more efficient operations in boilers and dryers.
  5. Lower Cost Feedstocks for Biodiesel Conversion: The ability to use low-cost, high-free fatty acid feedstocks for conversion to biodiesel has been an important breakthrough. With roughly 80% of the cost of biodiesel production tied up in feedstocks, technology advancements that have made it possible to convert lower cost waste oils and fats into biodiesel have given producers much-needed feedstock flexibility to manage costs and maximize competitiveness. In addition to soybean oil, used cooking oil, yellow grease and inedible corn oil from ethanol production are now common feedstocks.
  6. Corn Oil Extraction: One of the most significant breakthroughs in ethanol production over the past 10 years has been corn oil extraction from distillers grains. This process, whereby oil is mechanically spun out of distillers grains, was nonexistent in 2001 but is now adding value to approximately 80% of dry mill ethanol plants. Corn oil has strong demand in the feed and biodiesel markets.
  7. DDGS Enhancements (in both quality and consistency): You can't use all of the dried distillers grains with solubles, or DDGS, from a 14-billion-gallon ethanol industry in local markets. To grow, ethanol producers needed to create a national and international market for DDGS. However, in 2001 DDGS shipped cross-country in railcars often had to be broken apart with jackhammers to be unloaded – clearly not what the customer wanted. Ethanol producers learned how to avoid this by lowering the starch and sugar content of the product, and advanced process controls have allowed DDGS to be dried more precisely, assuring a more consistent product. Today's DDGS can be unloaded quickly and efficiently from specially designed railcars or shipped by container anywhere from Canada to China.
  8. New Catalysts for Biodiesel Production: An oil or fat reacts with methanol to create biodiesel. Catalysts reduce the time and enhance the level of biodiesel conversion.  Over the last 10 years, improved biodiesel catalysts have sped the conversion, minimized waste solids and waste water and lowered operating costs.
  9. Advanced Process Controls: While the "human touch" is still essential, the adoption of Advanced Process Controls, or APC, has brought a new level of precision to renewable fuels production. These integrated hardware and software systems are designed to bring a plant to maximum efficiency by eliminating variability in operational parameters in critical areas such as slurry solids, water balance, beer column evaporators, molecular sieves, dryers, fermentation and stillage/centrifuges. The benefits provided by APC include increased profitability, improved operations and enhanced visibility of key performance indicators, which provide the ability to track process performance and long-term sustainability through ongoing performance, monitoring and reporting.
  10. Unit Train Utilization: At the beginning of the past decade, ethanol was transported mainly by truck or a few "manifest" railcars at a time. That may have been fine in 2001, but it simply was not cost or time efficient for a 14-billion-gallon-per-year industry.  Today, ethanol's most common mode of transportation is 80 to 100 car unit trains that power directly from an ethanol plant to the final destination. By reducing transportation time, this "virtual pipeline" has allowed a typical plant to reduce the size of its railcar fleet from 300 to 350 cars down to about 200 cars today.

Iowa is the leader in renewable fuels production. Iowa has 13 biodiesel facilities with the capacity to produce 320 million gallons annually. In addition, Iowa has 41 ethanol refineries capable of producing nearly 3.7 billion gallons annually. The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association was formed in 2002 to represent the state's liquid renewable fuels industry. The trade group fosters development and growth of the renewable fuels industry in Iowa through education, promotion, legislation and infrastructure development. For more information, visit the IRFA website

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