The future of the U.S. ethanol industry depends on its ability to increase yields, be competitive with fossil fuels and fill a growing need for energy independence. Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) is lending its expertise to make that possible.
Fred Michel, a biosystems engineer based on OARDC's Wooster campus, has been collaborating with Cleveland-based Arisdyne Systems, which developed a technology called hydrodynamic controlled-flow cavitation that enables ethanol plants to produce more renewable fuel from the same amount of corn.
Supported by a $1 million Third Frontier grant awarded in 2008, Arisdyne's technology is currently installed at four ethanol plants throughout the United States, with several more plants considering implementation. Testing conducted by Michel has proven that Arisdyne's cavitation system helps increase ethanol yield by 2-3 percent -- data critical to convince even more players in the industry to test and adopt this new technology.
The impact can be significant: a 3-percent yield boost can increase the revenue of a 100-million gallon ethanol plant by approximately $3.75 million annually. And if the entire U.S. ethanol industry (13.2 billion gallons in 2010) were to use cavitation, the revenue increase could reach at least $500 million annually.
In addition to testing and validating Arisdyne's cavitation technology, Michel has assisted in demonstrating the amped-up yield claims at ethanol plants where this technology is being considered. He has also conducted a broad range of experiments to help prove and improve the process.
"At ethanol plants in the United States, corn grain containing between 70 and 73 percent starch is dry-milled, mixed with water and enzymes, fermented and then distilled to ethanol," said Michel, who has spent time researching biofuel technologies at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. "While the recovery of starch in commercial ethanol plants is high, as much as 4 percent of the starch remains in the byproducts after fermentation. We are targeting that 4 percent through the use of cavitation."
Installed at the beginning of the ethanol production process, Arisdyne's cavitation system breaks open the cell structure of corn particles, releasing trapped starch molecules in the kernel -- more starch means more sugar and, ultimately, more ethanol. This system has the added advantages of easily adapting to existing ethanol plant infrastructure and requiring little energy to run.
While maximizing the availability of starch is a key feature of this technology, Michel is also looking at the possible use of cavitation to treat another carbohydrate present in corn that can be turned into ethanol: cellulose. Use of cavitation for cellulosic ethanol production could generate another 3- to 5-percent boost in total fuel production from the same amount of grain delivered to ethanol plants.
Additionally, Michel is investigating the use of cavitation for cellulosic ethanol production from non-edible crops and crop residue, including wheat middlings, wheat and soybean straw, switchgrass and sorghum.
"The pre-treatment process involved in cellulosic ethanol production is very expensive, hindering the development of this renewable fuel sector," he explained. "Cavitation could reduce pre-treatment costs and make the whole process more effective."
While Arisdyne is a pioneer in the use of cavitation to produce biofuels (successfully using its technology at biodiesel and wastewater plants), it lacked expertise in the ethanol production process when it decided to test the cavitation system in this industry. Conversations with Ohio State agricultural economists and the university's Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center led Arisdyne to Michel and, soon after, to the Third Frontier grant application.
"Dr. Michel and OARDC have brought to our team expertise we didn't have regarding the chemistry of ethanol and the challenges of cellulosic ethanol production," said Fred Clarke, Arisdyne Systems' executive vice president. "This relationship has also made available to us very sophisticated lab capabilities, equipment, and staff; testing procedures that are crucial for the success of this project; and the credibility that comes from having an unbiased academic perspective."
Arisdyne has so far secured more than $7.5 million in private equity funding, including investments from such Ohio entities as Columbus-based Reservoir Venture Partners, Cincinnati- based Queen City Angels, and Cleveland-based Early State Partners. Funding also comes from California-based Chevron Technology Ventures and Georgia-based Cordova Ventures.
The company has created and sustained 13 jobs as a result of this project.
Find out more at http://arisdyne.com/vp/ethanol.htm