Dave Hansen, Nebraska Ethanol Board ambassador, takes a class trip to an ethanol plant.
My University of Nebraska-Lincoln class took a trip to the Abengoa Bioenergy on Oct. 22, 2015. It was an interesting opportunity to see how the material we are learning in class applies in industrial applications. I enjoyed seeing all of the piping and machinery, and watching the process happen in real time. Visiting the plant gave me a clearer picture of the scale of operations. On paper, it is tough to visualize the size of fermenters, columns and amount of corn that must go into churning out 55 million gallons of ethanol annually.
When we first arrived at Abengoa in York, Nebraska, Dalen Meisinger explained the schematic of the entire process. It was impressive and alarming to see how many different processes comprised the production of ethanol. He also passed around jars of samples of the various products and by-products of manufacturing ethanol. The funniest one was the jar of CO2 which was essentially empty.
I found it interesting that Abengoa was a unique plant in the sense that it repurposed the CO2 to creating carbonate, or carbonic acid, I don’t recall which. The facility that processed the carbon dioxide was on the premise, making it more economically viable and friendlier to the environment.
We toured the facility and enjoyed seeing the different equipment and layout of machines. I was surprised by how big the fermenting tanks were. They were about 3.5 stories tall and had a capacity of about 8 million gallons. Abengoa has four fermenting tanks that are emptied about every 18 hours. The set up at Abengoa gives them the opportunity to clean the tanks in between batches.
It was somewhat chilly that afternoon and you could see the wet grains steaming. They were shoveled by front-end loaders into grain trucks and hauled off to feed livestock nearby. Abengoa receives a lot of corn all day, every day. Yet, Mr. Meisinger noted that if the corn supply stopped they could only function for a few days. That is very tight scheduling.
After the ethanol is finished, a lot of it is shipped out in rail cars. There were about 100 rail cars on site that day. Some of them were used for storage of ethanol – another efficiency in the process. This plant had a lot of recycle, reuse and optimization built into the system. It was a fascinating glimpse into the production of ethanol and gave me a greater appreciation of having ethanol at a gas pump.