Corn Bioethanol Production Facility Design; Food and Fuel: How Corn's Popularity as a Biofuel Source Impacts the Environment

Gardner, Gregg, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Seabrook, Bryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Anderson, Eric, EN-Chem Engr Dept, University of Virginia

Corn bioethanol is a popular transportation fuel alternative for the United States as it transitions away from fossil fuels in favor of cleaner energy solutions. With an abundance of domestic corn supply and robust nationwide distribution, corn bioethanol blended into gasoline offers improved fuel economy and reduced tailpipe emissions. The prevalent usage of corn ethanol in the United States makes corn ethanol production an important area of study. This portfolio provides a complete picture of the corn ethanol production process across two interconnected projects. While the technical capstone report details the design and equipment specifications involved in bulk ethanol production, the STS research paper outlines the environmental implications of unchecked mass ethanol-related agriculture. The STS research paper also offers analysis into the sheer scope of corn agriculture, and how enhanced farming techniques offer tangible environmental benefits. Overall, the technical capstone report and STS research paper address a large part of the corn ethanol production system.

Corn ethanol conversion is a relatively straightforward industrial process that occurs in facilities throughout the United States. In broad terms, the process consists of milling corn, adding water and yeast, and fermenting the resulting mash. After the corn starches are largely converted into ethanol, the liquid mix is purified to form high-concentration ethanol. The technical capstone paper contains the design specifications for the equipment needed to produce 150 million gallons of ethanol per year. Technical design strategies and computer-aided simulation were used to validate the design proposal. In addition to the equipment design specifications, the capstone report also contains economic analysis and safety recommendations. Since large-scale chemical processes carry inherent process safety hazards, risk management strategies and designs are also included in the design report. Preliminary economic analysis is also included as part of the overall design validation. The technical capstone report offers an in-depth chemical plant design, though significant additional design work is necessary prior to capital investment.

With current federal programs like the Renewable Fuel Standard mandating that 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel are blended into transportation fuels sold in the United States, domestic corn demand is strong. The massive scale of agriculture needed to meet this demand imposes environmental harm from industrial farming techniques and counteracts the net positive impact of corn bioethanol. Mitigating the harm imposed by large-scale farming techniques is essential in maximizing the proposed net emissions advantage. Actor Network Theory (ANT) is a valuable STS-based tool in assessing the relationships between corn bioethanol system actors. ANT provides insight into how system participants interact to give rise to the present-day energy system. With enhanced system understanding, farmers and policymakers alike can support regulatory change and maximize corn production efforts without causing further environmental harm. The STS research paper details a variety of agricultural strategies that are proposed by experts to mitigate environmental harm without compromising output. The paper makes special mention of specific system actors responsible for implementing each strategy. The STS research paper was guided by the question: while it is important to acknowledge the necessity of corn bioethanol as a fuel source, how can corn farming techniques and crops be adapted to mitigate environmental harm?

The inter-related nature of the technical capstone topic and the STS research paper made the simultaneous work on both incredibly valuable. The technical capstone project and STS research paper offered a complete and robust picture of the overall corn ethanol production process from field to gas tank. Gaining an appreciation for the societal impacts of process design built upon the value of the technical capstone project and differed from previous classwork experiences. Instead of simply reciting equations and formulas, the plant design was put in context with each engineering decision gaining weight and significance. Additionally, the society-focused nature of the STS research paper formalized the analysis strategies introduced through the STS curriculum. In all, the two papers offered a practical introduction to what it really means to be an engineer.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
corn, bioethanol, monoculture, ANT

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Eric Anderson
STS Advisor: Bryn Seabrook
Technical Team Members: Christian Benedict, Emily Beyer, Gregg Gardner, William Mosberg, Riley Peterson

All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: