Corn Bioethanol Production Facility Design; The Corn Ethanol Industry as a Network: An Evaluation of the Sustainability of Corn-Based Ethanol

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

As global leaders work to address climate change and reduce anthropogenic emissions, the development of sustainable fuels becomes increasingly important. Ethanol, a biofuel implemented in an effort to reduce tailpipe emissions, is widely adopted within the United States’ energy infrastructure. This portfolio addresses the inherent issues characteristic of the widespread usage of bioethanol and explores the industrial manufacturing process. Specifically, the nontechnical portion focuses on analyzing the impact of the corn-based ethanol industry and the complicated relationships involved. The technical research portion relies on the application of chemical engineering to create a corn-based ethanol production facility. Both projects address the economic barriers associated with the industry, in addition to safety and environmental concerns. The intended product of the technical portion is fuel grade ethanol and co-products. During the plant design and process engineering, the team worked to balance improving the economics of ethanol production without increasing environmental and health risks. The deliverable of the STS research is a paper that explores the research question: Based upon the environmental and economic contributions of corn-based ethanol, what is the overall impact of this biofuel? The STS paper evaluates the overall viability of corn-ethanol as a biofuel and explores the ethics involved with balancing environmental consciousness with economic motivations.
Corn-based ethanol manufacturing facilities are large-scale plants that must operate with a high efficiency to create an economically viable product. The modeled plant is capable of annually producing 150 million gallons of ethanol from corn. To improve the economics of the plant, distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS), is further processed as a co-product and sold as animal feed. To minimize capital costs and promote efficient conversion, a dry milling process was adopted. The process is split into upstream and downstream operations. Upstream involves the processing of the raw corn and the fermentation of the starches into ethanol. Downstream includes separating ethanol from the beer mixture, in addition to processing the grain material into DDGS. Collectively, this can be broken into milling, pre-treatment, fermentation, distillation and centrifugation. The plant design relied on data sourced from peer reviewed journals, industry information, and processes published in textbooks. Power requirements and processing capabilities were determined using specifications provided by equipment venders. Distillation driven separations were simulated using AspenPlus. The downstream capabilities of this plant have been improved compared to others by implementing a molecular sieve to further purify the ethanol. This portion of the project serves to improve the available information on process optimization in the field of corn-based ethanol manufacturing.
The STS research focuses on the social, environmental, and economic implications that stem from the corn ethanol industry. The biofuel became largely popularized and integrated within the United States’ energy industry when mandates were passed to increase national biofuel consumption. While the introduction of fuel grade ethanol was expressed with a motivation to make environmental improvements and increase energy security, there are discrepancies regarding the viability of ethanol as a biofuel. The fuel has been debated regarding its economic, social, health, and ecological impacts. This paper aims to evaluate the net impact of ethanol and investigate how it has marketed itself as a green alternative to traditional gasoline. Published papers, research studies, policy records, and analytical reports are utilized to gain information about the forces involved in the industry. The research is analyzed using actor-network theory to understand how the various actors involved in the fuel grade ethanol industry have allowed this biofuel to maintain its hold on the American fuel system. The results should inform policymakers of findings that can aid in addressing the shortcomings of the current state of the United States’ energy infrastructure and its widespread influence on climate change.
To maximize the potential of research, both the technical and softer sides of science but be studied to provide a holistic evaluation. This portfolio seeks to achieve that. By balancing the technical, industry focused plant research with social and environmental impact research, the ethanol production process is expressed comprehensively. Although the STS portion focuses on the environmental, social, and economical implications of the ethanol industry, the technical portion provides the basis for a thorough analysis of the shortcomings of the manufacturing process. With the connections drawn between the technical and STS research, it is evident that alternative fuels must be developed to strive for a better future. The alternative fuel industry is a field of study that must heavily focus to balance engineering ethics with economics, as the future of the environment and world depend on it.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Bioethanol, Biofuel, Corn Ethanol
Issued Date: