New ways to improve corn ethanol production has been the focus of quite a bit of research. Increasing the efficiency of the production process of ethanol is the bull’s eye for researchers at Washington University. They have found a way to coax bacteria into breaking down the waste during the process, which releases large amounts of methane that can be pumped back into the plant to power it, closing the loop a little and cutting down on the amount of power a plant needs to produce ethanol.
This anaerobic digestion system can cut an ethanol plant’s use of natural gas by as much as 50%, as well as significantly cut the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.
Those are some serious numbers, considering researchers at the University of Minnesota found that ethanol provides only 26% more energy than what is used to produce it. Not much of a return on investment. This new process utilizing bacterial would change that to 70%. A HUGE jump. The numbers may not pan out to be quite as big when the process is done commercially, but it could still make a significant improvement.
The researchers were interested in improving the efficiency because they wanted to see a short-term solution for improving corn ethanol production while we wait for better ethanol products and systems – such as cellulosic – to go commercial nationwide. The only problem is getting ethanol plants to go for it. It’s a new system, untested on a large scale, and may take just as long to prove itself as the other ethanol processes in the works, making it not quite the short-term solution the researchers are hoping for.
Nevertheless, having this technology on hand and ready to go is pretty great, and hopefully a couple corn ethanol plants are willing to try it out. The results of the Washington University researchers’ study have been published in Environmental Science and Technology.