Ethanol Plants are Ramping Up Efficiency

Survey of more than 150 dry mill plants show they're cutting energy use to make corn-based biofuels.

Published on: May 28, 2010

In the great food versus fuel debate - which still rages on - there's the fight over how much energy it takes to make ethanol. According to a new report from the University of Illinois at Chicago the answer is "less now than ever." According to the report, the energy needed to make a gallon of the corn-based fuel dropped by about 30% in the past 10 years.

The results come from a survey of 150 dry mill ethanol plants that produce 85% of the biofuel in the United States. The work was conducted by Steffen Mueller, principal research economist at UIC's Energy Resources Center. The findings have value for policy makers studying the pros and cons of fuels based on their "full life cycle" - or the toal energy needed to create the fuel compared to its energy output.

In a press statement, Mueller notes that policy makers should pay attention to lifecycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels, but adds that biofuel refineries, including corn ethanol plants are in a rapid "innovation phase."

He says the survey shows the adoption of new technology reduces energy production needs. "The challenge for policy makers will be to keep up with these developments so that regulations are meaningful and reflect state-of-the-art industry practices," he adds.

Mueller found that plants use 28% less thermal energy and 32% less electricity to turn corn into ethanol. The results were gathered as part of a 24-question survey developed with ethanol industry input.