Computer models help guide ethanol production research

Agricultural Research Service scientists are demonstrating they can reduce ethanol fuel production costs by developing less expensive techniques for milling the corn used to make the fuel.

Computers are playing a key role in this research at the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC), in Wyndmoor, Pa., where scientists have completed several computer research models for performing cost analyses for ethanol production.

One model can estimate the cost per gallon to produce ethanol with various processes, according to Andy McAloon, head cost engineer with the ERRC's Crop Conversion Science and Engineering Unit. He and chemical engineer Winnie Yee help researchers at ERRC create computer models that predict the costs of possible alternatives to standard industry practices.

One model helps estimate costs for making ethanol by dry-grind processes, in which corn kernels are converted into ethanol without salvaging fiber, germ (oil) and protein. ERRC chemical engineer Frank Taylor worked with McAloon and Yee to update a 25-million-gallon-a-year model for dry-grind ethanol production to a 40-million-gallon version, the size of most new plants.

The model can examine a number of possibilities, such as developing new processes to reclaim waste heat, or to convert some of the fiber to ethanol. The model also will predict how these steps would affect the cost of making a gallon of ethanol.

In addition to dry-grind models, ERRC food technologist David Johnston worked with the other ARS scientists to create what they believe will be the first publicly available corn wet milling process and cost model. Wet milling involves separating components from starch before using it for ethanol production. Developed in cooperation with the Corn Refiners Association and the University of Illinois, the model will be used to improve an ERRC wet milling process using unique enzymes. This process requires much less sulfur dioxide during the steeping stage of wet milling than traditional wet milling.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

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