Ethanol production can yield some non-fuel uses that have yet to be realized.
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) has been researching efforts that produce ethyl lactate from reactive distillation. Ethyl lactate is a general all-purpose solvent as well as a common ingredient in pharmaceutical preparations, food additives and fragrances, and it is typically derived from petrochemicals. The reactive distillation process provides a cost-effective way to produce it from ethanol.
NCGA Vice President for Research and Business Development Richard Glass says they have worked with a team from Michigan State University, including chemical engineering professors Carl Lira and Dennis Miller.
Among the benefits is that reactive distillation can cut the cost of ethyl lactate production in half and provide a significant non-fuel revenue stream for ethanol plants. “If all you produce from a biorefinery is ethanol, that is fine for a nascent industry but, in essence, all you have is a one-trick pony,” Glass said. “My dream is the integrated biorefinery where the only limits are your imagination and the ability to make the system utilize all components of the production output.”
Glass said that at a typical ethanol plant producing 25 million gallons a year, diverting one million gallons to make chemicals like ethyl lactate each year could bring in the same amount of revenue as the remaining 24 million gallons of ethanol produced for fuel. NCGA is currently seeking companies interested in purchasing a license for this ethyl lactate technology, which can be retrofitted into a dry-grind ethanol plant.