ETHANOL BASICS

An American-made fuel

The field corn grown throughout the United States is used for ethanol, livestock feed and so many other uses. 

American-made ethanol supports a wide-range of jobs – from farmers to ethanol biorefinery managers to fuel researchers. Plant-based biofuel is the fastest-growing renewable energy technology, supporting thousands of jobs in the United States.

When we use homegrown, corn ethanol in our fuel supply, it decreases the barrels of oil we import from foreign nations. In 2017, 15.8 billion gallons of ethanol were made in the United States. Greater use of ethanol will increase our energy security while stimulating the US economy.

Ethanol also supports the Nebraska economy, contributing $5 billion each year, due in part to all the co-products also made during the production process. Additionally, ethanol is better for our environment because it replaces toxic, cancer-causing chemicals in gasoline – reducing greenhouse gases by as much as 42%!

Field corn vs. sweet corn

More than 99 percent of the corn grown in the United States is field corn. Field corn is harvested when the kernels are fully matured and dried. Field corn is primary used for livestock feed, ethanol production and other manufactured products. A small portion is processed for use as corn cereal, corn starch, corn oil and corn syrup.

Another type of corn is sweet corn. Sweet corn is enjoyed fresh off the cob, frozen or canned. This type of corn is picked when the kernels are immature, which is why sweet corn is soft and sweet.

How is ethanol made?

Ethanol is a domestically produced alternative fuel most commonly made from field corn. It is also made from cellulosic materials, such as crop residues and wood—though this is not as common. Ethanol is made in 28 states – from California to New York but U.S. ethanol plants are concentrated in the Midwest because of the proximity to corn production. Plants outside the Midwest typically receive corn by rail or use other feedstocks and are located near large population centers.

Production

The production method of ethanol depends on the type of materials used. All the plants in Nebraska produce ethanol using starch from corn.

Most ethanol in the United States is produced from starch-based crops by dry- or wet-mill processing. Nearly 90% of ethanol plants are dry mills due to lower capital costs. Dry-milling is a process that grinds corn into flour and ferments it into ethanol with co-products of distillers grains and carbon dioxide. Wet-mill plants primarily produce corn sweeteners, along with ethanol and several other co-products (such as corn oil and starch). Wet mills separate starch, protein, and fiber in corn prior to processing these components into products, such as ethanol.

Henry Ford and Alexander Graham Bell were among the first to recognize that the plentiful sugars found in plants could be easily and inexpensively converted into clean-burning, renewable alcohol fuels.

While the concept is the same today as it was then, the ethanol industry has come a long way since those days. Today, sophisticated renewable fuel refineries use state-of-the-art technologies to convert materials into high-efficiency ethanol (and other co-products).

See ethanol production in action

The easiest way to fully understand how ethanol made is by touring a facility but that’s not always easy to do. Check out the video links below for a more animated explanation of how ethanol is made.

How Ethanol is Made at Flint Hill Resources

How Ethanol is Made at KAAPA (shortened version)

How Ethanol is Made at KAAPA (full version)

Tour of Tharaldson Ethanol (South Dakota)

Ethanol A to Z