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Category Archives: Bioethanol

The world is debating on how to cut carbon emission and avert the disastrous consequences of global warming. But the emissions from fossil fuels continue unabated while the impact of global warming is being felt all over the world by changing weathers such as flood and draught. It is very clear that the current rate of carbon emission cannot be contained by merely promoting renewable energy at the current rate. Solar, wind, geothermal, ocean wave and OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion) offer clean alternative energy but now their total combined percentage of energy generation   is only less than 20% of the total power generation. The rate of Carbon reduction by  renewable energy  do not match  the rate of Carbon emission increase by existing and newly built  fossil power generation and transportation, to keep up the current level of Carbon in the atmosphere. The crux of the problem is the rate of speed with which we can cut the Carbon emission in the stipulated time frame. It is unlikely to happen without active participation of industrialized countries such as US, China, India, Japan, EU and Australia by signing a legally binding agreement in reducing their Carbon emissions to an accepted level. However, they can cut their emissions by increasing the efficiency of their existing power generation and consumption by innovative means.

One potential method of carbon reduction is by substituting fossil fuels with biomass in power generation and transportation. By using this method the energy efficiency is increased from current level of 33% to 50-60% in power generation by using gasification technologies and using Hydrogen for transportation. The Fixed carbon in coal is about 70% while the Carbon content in a biomass is only 0.475 X B (B-mass of oven-dry biomass). For example, the moisture content of a dry wood is about 19%,which means the Carbon mass is only 38% in the biomass. To substitute fossil fuels, the world will need massive amounts of biomass. The current consumption of coal worldwide is 6.647 billion tons/yr  (Source:charts the world will need at least 13 billion tons/yr of biomass to substitute coal .The total biomass available in the world in the form of forest is 420 billion tons which means about 3% of the forest in the world will be required to substitute current level of coal consumption. This is based on the assumption that all bioenergy is based on gasification of wood mass. But in reality there are several other methods of bioenergy such as biogas, biofuels such as alcohol and bio-diesel from vegetable oils etc, which will complement biogasification to cut Carbon emission.

Another potential method is to capture and recover Carbon from existing fossil fuel power plants. The recovered Carbon dioxide has wider industrial applications such as industrial refrigeration and in chemical process industries such as Urea plant. Absorption of Carbon dioxide from flue gas using solvents such as MEA (mono ethanolamine) is a well established technology. The solvent MEA will dissolve Carbon dioxide from the flue gas and the absorbed carbon dioxide will be stripped in a distillation column to separate absorbed carbon dioxide and the solvent. The recovered solvent will be reused.

The carbon emission can be reduced by employing various combinations of methods such as anaerobic digestion of organic matters, generation of syngas by gasification of biomass, production of biofuels, along with other forms of renewable energy sources mentioned above. As I have discussed in my previous articles, Hydrogen is the main source of energy in all forms of Carbon based fuels and generating Hydrogen from water using renewable energy source is one of the most potential and expeditious option to reduce Carbon emission.

The science and technology of Bioethanol production from starch or sugar is  well-established. Brazil leads the world in Bioethanol production with a capacity of 16,500 million liters/yr followed by US with a capacity of 16,230 million liters/yr.India produces merely 300 million liters/yr as the fifth largest producer in the world.US consumes about 873 MM gallons of oil/day of which about 58% is imported. The US forecast for 2025 import of oil is 870MMgal/day and the President wants to replace imported oil from the Middle East by 75% -100MMgal/day. (Ref: Environmental Protection Agency,Cincinnati,Ohio).

Currently bulk of the Bioethanol is produced in centralized plants. This is because an economical plant requires a production rate of 40-55 MMgal /day. Transportation of raw materials to long distance is uneconomical. Countries like India can substantially increase their sugar production and encourage small-scale distilleries for the sole purpose of replacing imported oil. Large scale Bioetehanol production involves fermentation of molasses; a byproduct of sugar industry.Bioethanol can also be produced directly from cane sugar juice or from starch such as Corn or Tapioca.

Molasses is diluted with water and inoculated by addition of yeast and other nutrients. The fermentation takes about 24 to 30 hours till the fermented broth has an alcohol content of 7.5 to 9.5% by volume. The fermented wash is then distilled in a separate distillation column. This alcohol which is 95-96% is known as rectified spirit. The rectified spirit is further passed though a Molecular sieve to remove moisture and to concentrate alcohol to 99.8% by volume. A spent wash of about 8 lits are generated per liters of Bioethanol.The spent wash will have a BOD (biological oxygen demand) value of  45,000ppm.This can be subject to Anaerobic digestion to generate ‘Bio  gas’ with about 55% Methane value and the liquid BOD will be reduced to less than 5000ppm. This Biogas can be used to generate power for the process. This process is economical for a production of Bioethanol 40-55MMgal/day.

But in countries like India the sugar cane molasses are available in smaller quantities and the sugar plants are scattered. Small scale distillery can adopt ‘Per-evaporation’ method to concentrate ‘Bioethanol’.The advantage with ‘Perevaporation’ is the process is not limited by thermodynamic vapor-liquid equilibrium. The distilled alcohol with 96% alcohol can be separated by Perevaportion into streams containing Bioethanol 99+% and alcohol depleted water.Perevaporation is a membrane separation process and it serves as an alternative to distillation and molecular sieve and saves energy. The membrane process can be suitably designed for alcohol enrichment as well as dehydration and easily adoptable for smaller production of Bioethanol.

Such process allows production of dehydrated Bioethanol which are suitable to use as a fuel in cars as a Gasoline blend without any engine modification. Production of Bioethanol from cane sugar molasses is cheaper than from corn starch. Countries like India should promote Bioethanol as an alternative fuel to gasoline and cut their oil imports.

Bioethanol has successfully substituted Gasoline as a fuel for cars both in the form of blends with Gasoline or individually as an Anhydrous Ethanol. This  successful demonstration by Brazil opens up new generation of cars called flex-fuel cars that allow usage of various blends of Ethanol and Gasoline.Bioethanol can also be used to generate Hydrogen on site by steam reformation so that even Fuel cell cars such as Honda FCX can be felled by Bioethanol.This makes Bioethanol unique as an alternative fuel for transportation. It also facilitates on site electricity generation using Fuel cell, replacing diesel engines.

Substitution of Gasoline by  Bioethanol has several advantages over other alternative fuels. The biggest advantage with Bioethanol is, it is renewable and it allows reduction of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and will be eligible for Carbon credit. It can be produced by both developing  as well as developed countries using  locally available agriculture produces such as cane sugar, corn, tapioca, sorghum etc. Hydrogen generated from Bioethanol is also free from Sulfur compounds normally associated with natural gas, making it an ideal fuel for Fuel cell application in cars, as well as for power generation using SOFC (solid oxide Fuel cell) or PAFC (Phosphoric acid Fuel cell).The resulting high purity Hydrogen 99.99% can be used as fuel for all type of transportation including Fuel cell Buses, scooters and even boats.

The stoichiometric reaction of steam reformation in presence of catalyst can be represented by the following chemical reaction:

C2H5OH + 3 H2O———- 6H2 + 2 CO2

The Ethanol and water mixture is preheated and the vaporized mixture is fed into a catalytic reactor. The resulting Hydrogen is contaminated with carbon monoxide. This gas mixture is separated using membrane such as Palladium to get Hydrogen with less than 50ppm CO as contaminant. Such purity is acceptable by Fuel cell such as SOFC as well as PAFC.In future a small micro-reactor for on-board reformation may be possible making Fuel cell cars with onboard liquid fuel storage.

Commercial reformers consumes about 0.88 lits of Biothanol of 96% purity to generate 1 Nm3 of Hydrogen with 60% conversion. This translates to $ 5.90 per Kg of Hydrogen. Fuel cell cars offer a mileage of 240 from 1 kg Hydrogen costing only $5.90. For on site power generation 1 kg Hydrogen generates as much as 15Kw electricity and 20Kw heat .Onsite Hydrogen generation with steam reformation also facilitates using SOFC and PAFC for high temperature power generation applications. They are ideal for CHP (combined heat and power) applications for 24×7 operations like hospitals, hotels and super markets. These fuel cells are silent in operation without any emissions except water vapor.

Governments should encourage Bioethanol production and distribution for both transportation and power generation. There is a fear that Ethanol could be diverted for potable purposes illegally depriving Governments of potential reveneues.But this can be solved by denaturing Bioethanol and making it unsuitable for potable purposes. Denaturants such Pyridine has no effect on steam reformation and number of denaturants are available. Such policies will allow the transition from fossil fuels to Hydrogen or Bioethanol.This is a simple and straight forward step any Government can take irrespective of the size or type of nation. But it requires political will, determination and leadership. Developing countries need not wait for big greenhouse emitters such as US, China and India to make a decision on their Carbon emissions but start introducing Bioethanol as fuel locally.

We live in a technological world where fuel and power play a critical role in shaping our lives and building our nations. The growth of a nation is measured in terms of fuel and power usage; yet there are many challenges and uncertainties in fuel supply and power generation technologies in recent past due to environmental implications. Fossil fuels accelerated our industrial growth and the civilization . But diminishing supply of oil and gas, global warming, nuclear disasters, social upheavals in the Arabian countries, financial problems, and high cost of renewable energy have created an uncertainty in the energy supply of the future. The future cost of energy is likely to increase many folds yet nobody knows for certain what will be the costs of energy for the next decade or what will be the fuel for our cars.  Renewable energy sources like solar and wind seem to be getting popular among people but lack of concrete Government plans and financial incentives for renewable, are sending mixed signals for investors. Recently number of solar industries in Germany are facing bankruptcy due to withdrawal of Government subsidies. Wind energy in India has got a setback due to withdrawal of Government financial support. Renewable industries are at their infant stages of  growth both technologically and financially. These industries will face a natural death in the absence of Government supports and incentives.

Individuals, small businesses and industries are unable to plan their future due to above uncertinities.In a globalised world such problem have to be tackled jointly and collectively. But that too looks unlikely due to ideological, political and social differences between countries. In the absence of any clear path forward, a common man is left with no alternative but find solutions for himself. Individuals can form small groups to produce their own fuel and generate their own power. There has never been a right moment in our history for such ventures. It can be easily done by people from rural areas especially in farming communities. They can set an example and rest of the country can follow. This will also help preventing mass migration from rural areas to cities, especially in China and India. They neglect their farms and migrate to cities to work in electronic industries for a better life.

The farming communities can form  groups and generate their own ‘Biogas’ or ‘Bioethanol’  from a common facility to fuel their cars and power their homes without any Government incentives and political interefernces.Making ‘Bioethanol’ from cane sugar molasses, beet sugar, corn, tapioca or sorghum on a small or medium scale is a  straight forward method. Fermentation and distillation is a well-known technology. It is controlled by Government excise departments for revenue purpose but Government can certainly allow farms or people to make their own ‘Bioethanol’ for their cars. Farms can generate their own Biogas’ from manure, agriculture wastes,  food waste, and waste water treatment facilities and generate their own power and supply biogas for heating and cooking for their communities.

Governments should allow people to make their own choices and decisions instead of controlling everything especially when they are unable to solve a problem. Countries like India should encourage farming communities in groups to set up their own ‘Bioethanol’ and ‘Biogas’ plants and allow import of  flex-fuel cars for Ethanol blends of various proportions. Alcohol has been a a’taboo’in many countries for several years but with current uncertainties with supply of  fuel and power, Government  can certainly remove such ‘taboo’ by highlighting the value of ‘Bioethanol as a source of fuel.Goevernments  can forgo their excise revenue by allowing people to make their own fuel. Alternatively they should offer incentives and subsidies for renewable energy developments. They cannot refuse both and still hope to continue in power because people will sooner or later  throw them out of power. After all Government are elected by people to address their problems.

Many universities, research and development institutions and industries are studying various biological processes to produce Hydrogen using different sources of organic materials such as Starch, Glucose, Bioethanol and cellulosic materials. However many of these technologies are at an early “proof of concept’ stages.  Moreover these processes depend upon site and availability of specific raw materials in these locations. For example, Brazil has been very successful in the production of Bioethanol from sugar cane molasses and using it as the fuel for cars. Brazil has also successfully used Bioethanol as a substitute for Naphtha as a feedstock for the production of ethylene, a precursor for a several plastics such as PVC and Polyethylene and Glycols. Bioethanol is a classic example of biological process than can successfully substitute Gasoline .Many industrial raw materials are also derived from Sugar cane and Corn Starch. The main issue in substituting Gasoline with bio-chemicals is political, in many countries. India has produced industrial alcohol from sugarcane molasses for  number of years but they were not be able successfully substitute Gasoline with Alcohol. They have to fix the price of Alcohol in relation to the price of Gasoline or Naptha.This pricing mechanism is critical.

We have been using coal as the raw material for several decades not only to generate power but also to produce host of organic chemicals and fertilizers such as Urea, coal-tar chemicals such as dyes and pharmaceuticals. These industries later switched over to oil and Gas. Now the world is facing depletion of fossil fuels at a faster rate. Greenhouse emission and global warming threats are looming large. There is a clear sign that the energy prices will sharply increase in the near future. Renewable energy projects are at early stages and their first costs and cost of productions are much higher compared to fossil fuel based power generation. However biological processes and biofuels offer a glimpse of hope to get over the energy crisis and also to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Production of   Biohydrogen using bio-organic organic materials such as starch, glucose and cellulosic materials are under development, but it may be a decade before they can be successfully commercialized. But production of Bioethanol and Biogas are well-known technologies. Generation of Biogas from agricultural waste, food waste and municipal solid waste and waste water are known technologies. However Methane the major constituents of biogas, is a potential greenhouse gas. The Biogas can be easily cleaned from other impurities such as Carbon dioxide and Hydrogen sulfide and can be readily converted in Hydrogen gas by steam reformation. This will substantially increase the energy efficiency of Biogas plants.

Many developing countries can adopt these technologies on a wider scale and promote Bioethenaol and Biogas generation to substitute petroleum oil and gas. They can convert Gasoline cars into 100% Bioethanol (anhydrous) or blended with gasoline fuels for cars. These technologies are commercially available. Some countries in Asia, Africa and South America produce various starches such as Tapioca starch for industrial applications. Vegetable oils such as Jatropha and Castor oils are excellent for bio-fuels and lubricants. Though it is theoretically possible to substitute most of the petrochemicals with bio- organic materials, it is important that food products such as corn should not be diverted for commercial applications such as fuel.

The coming decade will be a challenging one and Hydrogen generation from various biological organic materials can substitute fossil fuels at a much faster rate. A judicial mix of bio-energy and renewable energy such as solar and wind should help the world to overcome the challenges.

There is so much discussion about Hydrogen as a source of clean energy because, it is the choice of Nature. Nature has provided us with fossil fuels which are Hydrocarbons, chemically represented by CxHy, Carbon and Hydrogen atoms. In the absence of Hydrogen in a Hydrocarbon, it is nothing but Carbon, which is an inert material. The Hydrocarbon gets its heating value only from the presence Hydrogen atom. The natural gas, now considered as the cleanest form of Hydrocarbon is represented by the chemical formula CH4, containing 25% Hydrogen by weight basis. It represents the largest Carbon to Hydrogen ratio at 1:4.This is the highest in any organic chemicals. In aromatic organic compounds such as Benzene, represented by C6H6, the Hydrogen content is only 7.69%.Even in Sugar which is an organic compound from Nature, represented chemically as C12H22O11 has only 8.27% Hydrogen. But Bioethanol, derived from sugar represented by C2H4OH has almost 11.11% Hydrogen. That is why Ethyl Alcohol known as ‘Bioethanol’ derived from sugar is blended with Gasoline (Hydrocarbon), for using as a fuel in cars in countries like Brazil.

Brazil is the only country that does not depend on imported Gasoline for their cars. The same Bioethanol can also be derived from Corn starch. But the starch should first be converted into sugar before alcohol is derived; that is why it is more expensive to produce Bioethanol from starch than from cane sugar molasses. The climatic conditions of Brazil are more favorable for growing Cane sugar than corn. That is why Brazil is in a more advantageous position than North America, when it comes to Bioethanol. US is one of the largest consumer of Gasoline.US has imported 11.5 million barrels/day of oil in 2010.It has used 138.5 billion gallons of Gasoline (3.30billion barrels) in 2010) according to EIA. (US Energy Information Administration)

It is estimated that Brazil’s sugar based Alcohol is 30% cheaper than US’s corn-based Alcohol. Brazil has successfully substituted Gasoline with locally produced alcohol .They also introduced ‘flexible fuel vehicles’ that can use various blends of Alcohol-Gasoline. Most of the Gasoline used in US has 10% Ethanol blend called E10 and E15, representing the percentage of Alcohol content in Gasoline. Brazil is the largest producers of Bioethanol in the world. Both Brazil and US account for 87.8% of Bioethanol production in the world in 2010 and 87.1% in 2011.Brazil is using Bioethanol blends of various proportions such as E20/E25/E100 (anhydrous alcohol) (Ref: Wikipedia). Almost all cars in Brazil uses Bioethanol blended Gasoline and even 100% anhydrous Bioethanol are used for cars. Brazil has set an example as a ‘sustainable economy introducing alternative fuel’ to the rest of the world. The ‘bagasse’ from cane sugar is also used as a fuel as well in the production of ‘Biogas’, which helps Brazil to meet sustainability on renewable energy and greenhouse gas mitigation.

The above example is a clear demonstration of sustainability because natural organic material such as sugar is the basic building block by which we can build our Sustainable clean energy of the future. The same Bioethnanol can easily be reformed for the production of Hydrogen gas to generate power and run Fuel cell cars. Many companies are trying to use chemicals such as metal Hydrides as a source of Hydrogen. For example, one company successfully demonstrated using Sodium Borohydride for Hydrogen production. Many companies are trying to find alternative sources of Hydrogen generation from water, including Photo-electrolysis using direct solar light and special photo catalyst materials. We know Nature produces sugar by using sun’s light, water and carbon dioxide from air by photosynthetic process. Can man duplicate this natural process and generate Hydrogen at the fraction of the cost by simply using water and sun’s light? The race is already on and only time can tell whether our pursuit for cheap and clean Hydrogen can become a commercial reality or just stay as an elusive dream.




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