Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Ethanol Production Process

Ethanol Plant
Ethanol Plant
Though new technology may eventually blur the distinction between them, ethanol is produced by one of two processes: wet milling and dry milling. Wet mills are more expensive to build, are more versatile in terms of the products they can produce, yield slightly less ethanol per bushel, and have more valuable co-products. Wet milling initially accounted for most of the ethanol fuel production in the United States, but new construction has shifted to dry mills, partly because dry mills cost less to build.

Dry-milling plants have higher yields of ethanol. The wet mill is more versatile, though, because the starch stream, being nearly pure, can be converted into other products (for instance, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)). Co-product output from the wet mill is also more valuable.

In each process, the corn is cleaned before it enters the mill. In the dry mill, the milling step consists of grinding the corn and adding water to form the mash. In the wet mill, milling and processing are more elaborate because the grain must be separated into its components. First, the corn is steeped in a solution of water and sulfur dioxide (SO2) to loosen the germ and hull fiber. This 30- to 40-hour extra soaking step requires additional tanks that contribute to the higher construction costs. Then the germ is removed from the kernel, and corn oil is extracted from the germ. The remaining germ meal is added to the hulls and fiber to form the corn gluten feed (CGF) stream. Gluten, a high-protein portion of the kernel, is also separated and becomes corn gluten meal (CGM), a high-value, high-protein (60 percent) animal feed. The corn oil, CGF, CGM, and other products that result from the production of ethanol are termed co-products.

Unlike in dry milling, where the entire mash is fermented, in wet milling only the starch is fermented. The starch is then cooked, or liquefied, and an enzyme added to hydrolyze, or segment, the long starch chains. In dry milling, the mash, which still contains all the feed co-products, is cooked and an enzyme added. In both systems a second enzyme is added to turn the starch into a simple sugar, glucose, in a process called saccharification. Saccharification in a wet mill may take up to 48 hours, though it usually requires less time, depending on the amount of enzyme used. In modern dry mills, saccharification has been combined with the fermentation step in a process called simultaneous saccharification and fermentation (SSF).

Glucose is then fermented into ethanol by yeast (the SSF step in most dry- milling facilities). The mash must be cooled to at least 95deg. F before the yeast is added. The yeast converts the glucose into ethanol, carbon dioxide (CO2), and small quantities of other organic compounds during the fermentation process. The yeast, which produces almost as much CO2 as ethanol, ceases fermenting when the concentration of alcohol is between 12 and 18 percent by volume, with the average being about 15 percent. An energy-consuming process, the distillation step, is required to separate the ethanol from the alcohol-water solution. This two-part step consists of primary distillation and dehydration. Primary distillation yields ethanol that is up to 95-percent free of water. Dehydration brings the concentration of ethanol up to 99 percent. Finally, gasoline is added to the ethanol in a step called “denaturing,” making it unfit for human consumption when it leaves the plant.

The co-products from wet milling are corn oil and the animal feeds corn gluten feed (CGF) and corn gluten meal (CGM). Dry milling production leaves, in addition to ethanol, distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS). The feed co-products must be concentrated in large evaporators and then dried. The CO2 may or may not be captured and sold.

Reprinted from USDA publication “New Technologies in Ethanol Production”