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Feature   |  Spring 2006

Waste not, want not

Researchers use waste materials to get more mileage from ethanol

Reynolds, Ind., isn't your typical trendsetting metropolis. It's a slice of Americana where children get out of school when the governor comes to town and men in Carhartts kid each other about whose turn it is to be mayor next week.

The single-stoplight town isn't used to the limelight, much less hosting dignitaries and taking on a moniker with such huge implications. Rechristened “Biotown,” the community is the center of attention as state and local officials transform it into the first town in the world powered entirely by bioenergy.

Cindy & Jack Beckhoff

Cindy and Jack Beckhoff, joined by granddaughter Katlyn, are among the Reynolds, Ind., residents who won use of an ethanol-powered vehicle in a bid to transform the town into a bioenergy-powered community. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

To begin the makeover, the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, which is working with the town on this project, arranged with General Motors for 20 of the townspeople to win use of an E85 ethanol-powered car or truck for two years. The names of 300 community residents were dropped into a barrel, from which Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman selected the winners. “We are making over the mindset of Hoosiers,” she says. “We want to create a culture in which biofuels and renewable energy are natural in Indiana.”

Phase 1 of the Biotown project promotes the use of ethanol and biodiesel. Phases 2 and 3 include plans to transform animal waste from area livestock farms into electricity and natural gas.

Winners Cindy and Jack Beckhoff find the buzz surprising. “We're just a spot on the map,” Jack says. Even those who didn't win a car claim victory. “If we can help local farmers and our community rely less on foreign oil, that's fantastic,” says local resident Bill Dahlenburg.

The road to progress

One of the reasons Reynolds was chosen for this experiment was its close proximity to Purdue University. The biofuel enthusiasm extends down the highway some 20 miles to Purdue. Researcher Michael Ladisch, whose goal it is to make the production of ethanol as efficient and cost-effective as possible, says the community experiment is also a great educational opportunity, because more people will learn about the potential of biofuels.

gas pumpEthanol's significance has increased with skyrocketing oil prices and the government's push for cleaner-burning gasoline. This year, 4 billion gallons of gasoline with renewable-fuel additives, such as ethanol, will be produced. Under provisions of the Energy Bill, this figure should grow to 7.5 billion by 2012.

Currently, ethanol is produced primarily from corn, but Ladisch, distinguished professor of agricultural and biological engineering, hopes to change the formula. He makes frequent trips to an ethanol plant in Pekin, Ill., to meet with Gary Welch and other company officials. They are planning a test of Ladisch's discovery of a way to make 10 percent more ethanol from the residue left over from the ethanol production process. If this project proves successful, the corn used to make ethanol will provide processors with even more bang for the buck.

His project partners at Aventine Renewable Energy already sell the “distillers grains” left over from ethanol production to farmers for livestock feed. The experiment they plan to conduct based on Ladisch's research will test the possibility of further processing this co-product, creating more ethanol from it, and, in the end, having an even more valuable and nutrient-dense animal feed product.

The process involves pretreating the resulting fiber, which comes out about the color of sawdust but has the consistency of wet snow. The mushy substance is further distilled by cooking it with hot water under pressure. “We've done this in the lab, but in order to move this technology forward we have to make it work well in an industrial setting,” Ladisch says.

The U.S. Department of Energy will fund the test, which will take place this summer. While he knows the process works, Ladisch will not be happy until industry adopts the technology. “Most academics stop at the equation and writing-the-paper stage,” he says. “But this is an evolving technology, and the research requires taking the next step. We have new information here that others don't have yet. If it works, it will open up new processing capability in the industry.”




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