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Navigating the biofuel maze

North American ethanol production in 2008 will consume just under 100 million bushels of corn.

February 16, 2008  By Lorne McClinton

Canada’s domestic biofuel industry is about to take off. Six new Canadian based ethanol plants are slated to come on line by the end of 2008. The plants, two on the prairies and four in Ontario, will pour 880 million new litres into the Canadian fuel market. While six plants does not sound like a big number, they will nearly triple the amount of ethanol manufactured in Canada. When the last of the group are commissioned, total production will be just under a billion and a half litres. The figure is even
more remarkable considering ethanol production was only 212 million litres in 2003.

Production has expanded quickly to meet proposed government fuel mandates requiring that five percent of all gasoline and two percent of diesel fuel come from renewable sources by the end of 2010 and 2012, respectively. It will require about two billion litres of ethanol and 600 million litres of biodiesel to hit these targets. While ethanol production is on track to meet it, biodiesel production has lagged and will need to go through a five-fold expansion to fill requirements.

Some hybrids are earmarked for their ethanol yield potential.

Recycled sunshine
Biofuels can be added to petroleum products easily because, chemically, they are very similar. Ethanol and biodiesel, just like gasoline and diesel fuel, are really plant-stored solar energy. The main difference is the time when their component plants were alive. Biofuels could come from solar energy, stored by plants, as recently as last summer. Petroleum is solar energy, stored by plants, millions of years ago.


Biodiesel basics
Biodiesel, for example, is almost identical to diesel fuel on a molecular level. It is very simple to make. All that is needed is vegetable oil, or a liquefied animal fat, and a process to strip out the glucose with a reactant agent like ethanol. In fact, in the summer months, a grower could take a bottle of vegetable oil, pour it into a diesel tank and the vehicle would run. One would not want to do this very often though: the glucose component would have the same effect as adding sugar to diesel fuel. It would ruin the engine in a very short time.

What is ethanol?
Ethanol is alcohol; the same kind of alcohol found in beer or whiskey. In fact, it is pure distilled alcohol. While typical, non-distilled alcohols like beer will have five to seven percent alcohol by volume, and distilled spirits like whiskey have up to 40 percent, fuel alcohol is 99 percent pure alcohol. It is so pure that government regulations require ethanol plants to add a small percentage of gasoline to their production before it leaves the plant to ‘denature’ it, ensuring people are not going to drink it.
Ethanol can be made from just about anything that contains starch or sugar and, at least the initial steps in production occur naturally as part of the decomposition process. For instance, the decaying contents of a refrigerator’s vegetable drawer could be processed into ethanol.

Even though ethanol can be made from almost any form of plant life, not all feed stocks can be used to make it cheaply enough to be used in vehicles. That is why all Canadian plants, with the exception of Iogen’s small, two million litre cellulosic ethanol plant in Ottawa, will make ethanol from grain. The plants located in central Canada will use corn and those on the prairies will use wheat.

According to the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, a bushel of grain, whether it is corn or wheat, will produce about 10 litres of ethanol. Using this 10 to one ratio, a 200 million litre ethanol plant will use 20 million bushels of grain a year. By the end of 2008, ethanol production will consume just under 100 million bushels (2.5 million tonnes) of corn and approximately 50 million bushels (1.3 million tonnes) of wheat. To put this in perspective, Canadian farmers, on average, grow 8.7 million tonnes of corn annually and grew 19.1 million tonnes of hard spring wheat in 2006.

Makers of fine whiskey can charge hundreds of dollars per litre for their best alcohol. The best extra virgin salad oils can sell for more than $20 per litre. However, biofuel has to be cheap enough to burn in vehicles. It is a high volume, low margin business. Plants are interested in extracting as much ethanol, or as much vegetable oil as possible from every bushel of grain. That is why seed companies like Pioneer Hi-Bred have started to classify their lineups to denote those products that offer improved functionality for end-use applications. This includes corn hybrids by their high total fermentable (HTF) content, soybean varieties by their oil and protein content and canola varieties by their oil content, alone.

Accurately predicting ethanol yield
Pioneer developed the first grain assay to accurately predict ethanol yield potential (EYP) in corn. The calibration is useful since research shows there can be a seven percent variation in the ethanol yield potential among hybrids. Pioneer has made this calibration available to other partners in the ethanol industry.

Government mandates for higher blends of ethanol and biodiesel are pushing more processing plants into production, with six new facilities across Canada by the end of 2008.

“Pioneer’s new ethanol yield potential meter uses near infrared spectrometry to measure how many
gallons of ethanol a bushel of corn will produce,” says Scott Iverson, Pioneer’s key accounts manager for biofuels. “We’ve characterized all our hybrids and have designated those with the potential to produce above average ethanol yields as HTF ethanol hybrids.”

While wheat has been graded by  protein content for decades, the corn grading system has essentially remained unchanged since 1916. Iverson says this new EYP grading system is a radical change from the standard visual grading. Ethanol plants may one day use EYP as another grading standard just like they currently use test weights.

“Corn grain is an ethanol plant’s single biggest variable cost item and every plant understands that grain
quality matters,” Iverson says. “Ethanol production is all about chemistry, so ethanol plants are interested in the chemical composition of the grain. We have now installed our EYP calibration in about 20 ethanol plants across North America and they are testing every load of grain that comes into the plant. They use this understanding of grain quality to identify preferred vendors and develop relationships with them to positively impact their actual production output.”

Iverson admits that it may be sometime before producers receive monetary impact for delivering a
truckload of corn from hybrids designated as HTF to an ethanol plant.

“We’ve been grading the same way for a long period of time,” Iverson says. “It’ll take some time for us to migrate to EYP. In the long run, we all expect that there will be better and better ethanol hybrids available and this system will give us the opportunity to identify them.” -end-

Biobutanol is the future
Farmers are soon going to be hearing a lot about a new type of biofuel, biobutanol. DuPont and BP have joined together to build the world’s first biobutanol demonstration facility in the UK. If all goes as planned, the demonstration facility will be online by the early 2009. Opportunities for biobutanol in North America are currently being studied.

Biobutanol, or butanol made from grain or some other biomass, is closely related to ethanol but
performs more like gasoline as a transportation fuel. The only difference between the two alcohols is the number of carbon atoms in their molecules; the butanol molecule has four carbon atoms, while ethanol has only two. This small difference has a big impact. It not only allows biobutanol to pack a much larger energy punch, it also eliminates many of the blending and transportation problems associated with ethanol.

“We’re interested in biobutanol because it is 100 percent compatible with gasoline and also has the ability to improve the performance of ethanol blends,” says Scott Iverson, Pioneer Key Accounts Manager, Biofuels. “Biobutanol has the ability to improve the vapour pressure of ethanol blended fuels. Biobutanol can also be used in cars at higher blend ratios without the need for vehicle modifications. Its energy content is also higher than ethanol and closer to gasoline. Gasoline has about 114,000BTU per gallon, biobutanol has 110,000BTU and ethanol has only 77,000BTU.

Another interesting characteristic is that, unlike ethanol, butanol does not absorb water. This means it can be transported around the continent with existing petroleum infrastructure. This avoids the
transportation infrastructure log-jams that are currently having such a dramatic impact on the American ethanol industry.

“The existing transportation fuels infrastructure is by far the cheapest way to move fuel. Petroleum
companies put water in between fuels and pipelines to segregate different fuel lots,” Iverson says. “Since ethanol absorbs water, you can’t put ethanol in a pipeline, but you can ship biobutanol because it does not phase separate in the presence of water.”

Almost any plant that currently makes ethanol can be modified to produce biobutanol by making changes in the fermentation and distillation process. Biobutanol is not difficult to make but Iverson admits additional fine-tuning is necessary to improve process efficiency before it is truly competitive with ethanol.

“Our scientists are working around the clock to develop a high efficiency process to make biobutanol,” Iverson says. “Their work continues to amaze me.” -end-


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