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Posts tagged: ethanol

Innovation is Driving Down Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Corn-based Ethanol

A flexible fuel pump with ethanol

This flexible fuel pump offers 30% and 85% ethanol fuel.

Ethanol, primarily derived from corn, supplies about 10 percent of US motor fuel needs.  A new study from ICF which was released today, titled “A Life-Cycle Analysis of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Corn-Based Ethanol,” finds that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with corn-based ethanol in the United States are about 43 percent lower than gasoline when measured on an energy equivalent basis.  This is comparable to reducing GHG emissions in the U.S. transportation sector by as much as 35.5 million metric tons per year.

Ethanol production has changed significantly over the past ten years. U.S. production has ramped up from 3.9 to 14.8 billion gallons per year between 2005 and 2015. As demand for corn ethanol has increased, corn production in the US expanded from 11.8 billion bushels in 2004 to 13.6 billion bushels in 2015 (NASS).

Unlike earlier studies of ethanol’s GHG benefits, which had to rely on projections of future ethanol production systems and expected impacts on the farm sector, this study was able to review how the industry and farm sectors have performed over the past decade to assess the current GHG profile of corn-based ethanol.

Earlier studies of ethanol’s GHG balance projected the effects of allocating billions of bushels of corn to ethanol production on supplies of corn and other commodities going to domestic and world food and feed markets.  Those studies expected that farmers in the U.S. and other regions would respond to higher corn prices by bringing new lands into corn production. Bringing new land into commodity production typically results in increased GHG emissions—and those emissions can be large if the former land use was native grassland, wetland, or forest. However, what actually occurred in the US and around the world is more complex.

The Three Rivers Energy biorefinery in Ohio

The Three Rivers Energy biorefinery in Ohio produces corn-based ethanol.

Increased use of corn to produce ethanol in the US did have a positive price effect on corn.  As a result, within the US and abroad, idled croplands were brought into production; cropland already in production was managed more intensively; and by-products of corn ethanol production were used more efficiently as animal feed. Around the world, producers increased their use of double cropping.

The ICF report draws on those new data, including the analysis in Bruce Babcock and Zabid Iqbal’s publication “Using Recent Land Use Changes to Validate Land Use Change Models”.  Babcock and Iqbal’s study confirmed that the primary land-use change response by the world’s farmers to increased demand for corn during the period 2004-2012 was to increase double cropping, reduce un-harvested planted area, reduce fallow land, and reduce temporary pasture in order to expand production. Moreover, the use of distillers dried grains and solubles (or DDGS) became a preferred substitute for corn grain, thereby muting the increased demand.

Those types of production gains are emblematic of innovation in modern agriculture. In 1961, it took 3.38 billion acres of cropland to feed the world’s population of 3.5 billion people. Over the next fifty years, the world’s population doubled to seven billion people, while cultivated land increased by only 12 percent to 3.78 billion acres. Productivity gains driven by improvements in technology have allowed farmers to get more output from existing resources, and thereby to keep pace with the growing demands an increasing global population puts on agriculture for food, fiber, and energy products.

In addition to the gains from reduced levels of land conversion, the ICF report shows that the reductions in GHG emissions from corn ethanol are continually driven by a variety of improvements in efficiency, from the corn field to the ethanol refinery. On-farm conservation practices, such as reduced tillage and nitrogen management, improved the GHG balance of growing corn for ethanol. Production yields, measured in gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn, have increased by 3.4 percent between 2006 and 2014.

Ethanol plants have also improved process efficiencies and can now produce biofuels that generate double the lifecycle GHG reductions estimated earlier, and there are opportunities to improve performance even more. New enzymes and yeast strains have increased process efficiencies in starch conversion and fermentation. Those process upgrades have become drivers for a decreasing GHG-intensity of corn ethanol production. Improved technologies such as combined heat and power, and using landfill gas for energy offer continued areas for improved efficiencies.  New co-products, such as corn-oil biodiesel and DDGS have helped reduce GHG lifecycle emissions.

The report concludes that the GHG profile of corn ethanol is on track to be almost 50 percent lower than gasoline in 2022 if current trends in corn yields, process fuel switching, and improvements in trucking fuel efficiency continue.

One of the ICF report’s important findings is that there is a large potential for additional gains in ethanol’s GHG efficiency. The study examined the potential GHG benefits of additional on-farm conservation practices and efficiency improvements, such as the practices outlined in USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry strategy. When these practices and plant efficiency improvements are universally adopted, the GHG benefits of corn ethanol are even more pronounced over gasoline—potentially rising to 76 percent gain in GHG benefits.

Continuing these trends is good news for the transportation sector—and the agriculture sector—when it comes to reducing GHG emissions.

A nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller’s grains, left over from corn-ethanol production

USDA scientists have developed a nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller’s grains, left over from corn-ethanol production.

Resuscitated Biorefinery Breathes New Life into Rural Ohio Community

USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service Administrator Lillian Salerno listens as Erik Chaffer, environmental health, safety and logistics manager for Three Rivers Energy, recounts the long-hoped for reopening of the ethanol plant he helped mothball in 2008 during the Great Recession. Located in rural Coshocton County, Ohio, the plant employs nearly 40 area residents and purchases corn from local farmers. (USDA photo: Heather Hartley)

USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service Administrator Lillian Salerno listens as Erik Chaffer, environmental health, safety and logistics manager for Three Rivers Energy, recounts the long-hoped for reopening of the ethanol plant he helped mothball in 2008 during the Great Recession. Located in rural Coshocton County, Ohio, the plant employs nearly 40 area residents and purchases corn from local farmers. (USDA photo: Heather Hartley)

Erik Chaffer considers himself an optimist. Still, he found himself feeling pretty low as he watched the Great Recession knock the legs out from under the rural Ohio ethanol plant he helped manage.

“Everything was pretty good until July 2008. It was just a ‘perfect storm’ type of situation,” said Chaffer. “The unknown is the worst part of it. You can’t make plans for the future. It’s a very stressful, unnerving way of life.” Read more »

Kitty Litter: Potential New Use for Spent Corn Grains

ARS scientists have developed a nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller's grains, left over from corn-ethanol production.

ARS scientists have developed a nearly 100 percent biodegradable kitty litter made from dried distiller's grains, left over from corn-ethanol production.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

Sometimes, the results of USDA science show up in the most unlikely places—maybe even in your cat’s litter box.

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists have discovered a way to make kitty litter that’s nearly 100 percent biodegradable by processing spent grains left over from corn ethanol production.

And what’s good for you and your cat may also be good for the environment. ARS researcher Steven F. Vaughn and his colleagues have shown that litter made with these grains as the starting material may prove to be more environmentally friendly than popular but nonbiodegradable, clay-based litters that mostly end up in landfills. Read more »

Corn Cobs on the Job

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

If you’re of a certain age, you might remember General Douglas MacArthur’s famous corncob pipe, or the one sported by “Granny” on the hit TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.” But aside from those picturesque examples, corncobs have tended to mostly be considered a waste product left over from the harvest of the golden, juicy kernels of corn.

That’s in the process of changing, thanks to the scientists of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).  For starters, they’ve shown that corn cobs left in the field after harvest can boost soil quality.  Beyond that, those tough cobs can be used to make a whole host of products. Read more »

Secretary Leads Business Roundtable Discussion with U.S. and Mexican Agribusiness Representatives

On Friday, May 17, 2013, in Mexico City, Mexico USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack led U.S. and Mexican agribusiness representatives in a discussion of priority issues affecting North American agriculture. The roundtable’s participants represented the breadth and diversity of agricultural trade between the United States and Mexico. Representatives from Grupo Bimbo, Gruma, Driscoll’s, Cargill, and others joined the Secretary, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Anthony Wayne, and Acting Deputy Under Secretaries Suzanne Heinen and Max Holtzman to share their views on the opportunities and obstacles facing increased agricultural trade between the United States and Mexico. Read more »

Under Secretary Says Renewable Fuels Help Build a Stronger Rural Economy and a More Secure Energy Future

Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager describes Secretary Vilsack’s “All of the Above” energy strategy during the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit. USDA photo.

Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager describes Secretary Vilsack’s “All of the Above” energy strategy during the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit. USDA photo.

A mid-winter snow storm did not stop more than 200 participants from attending the 7th Annual Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit and Trade Show held January 30th in Des Moines.

During Under Secretary for Rural Development Dallas Tonsager’s presentation it was clear that everyone in attendance was extremely focused on helping identify ways the renewable fuels industry can continue to create economic opportunities in rural America. At the summit Mr. Tonsager also had the opportunity to hear Tom Buis with Growth Energy give a detailed overview of the ethanol industry and its many positive impacts throughout our country. Read more »