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.
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 (shortened version)
How Ethanol is Made at KAAPA (full version)
Tour of Tharaldson Ethanol (South Dakota)