by Susannah Patton

Energy – Tech that Fuels Ethanol Production

Jun 15, 20063 mins
CTOData Center

Ethanol isn’t new. Henry Ford originally designed the Model T to run on the corn-based fuel, which currently accounts for roughly 3 percent of the nation’s fuel consumption. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, say, however, that ethanol could replace 20 percent to 30 percent of fuel usage in the United States in just a few years—in part through cars converted to burn a mixture of ethanol and gas.

And so, as the country faces the dual dilemmas of oil dependence and global warming, leaders, including President Bush, are touting ethanol as a possible fuel of the future—and ethanol producers such as Tom Branhan are turning to IT to help them boost production.

Branhan is CEO of Glacial Lakes Energy, which operates an ethanol plant in Watertown, S.D. His company started using predictive control software from Pavilion Technologies about a year ago to help boost production and reduce the amount of natural gas used to run the plant. Since then, the company—which converts more than 17 million bushels of corn per year into 50 million gallons of ethanol—has increased production by as much as 10 percent while cutting its natural gas usage by up to 3 percent. “Adding computer control to our production process has allowed us to stay ahead of the curve,” Branhan says.

Even though the basic technique used to make the fuel—distilling corn to make alcohol—hasn’t changed much in a century, the process of producing high-grade ethanol can be tricky, Branhan points out. The corn is ground up and cooked, and the resulting starch is mixed with water to form a mash. By adding yeast, the mash is fermented and then pumped into a distillation system where the manufacturing process is completed. Throughout the process, producers need to monitor moisture levels, air flow and other variables such as the flow of natural gas that powers the plant’s machinery.

By using control technology, ethanol producers can more effectively monitor these variables and make data visible to plant operators, Branhan says. For example, the computerized system allows Glacial Lakes’ plant operators to more closely analyze the amount of water in the ethanol. They can then take steps to maximize the water content in the fuel, enabling greater production.

Predictive control technology was first used in oil refineries in the 1970s and is now used in petrochemical plants as well as power plants and paper mills. Tom Fiske, a senior analyst at ARC Advisory Group, says that by building control technology into plans for new ethanol plants, producers can be sure that they will be operating efficiently.

“The ethanol industry is still young,” observes David Culver, director of operations at Glacial Lakes. And greater automation, Culver adds, will help this industry face growing demand for its product.