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New Pilot Plant Could Help Boost Ethanol Use

By Don Comis
November 23, 2001

In January 2003, a new pilot ethanol processing plant will open in Edwardsville, Ill. The plant is considered essential to the industry’s goal of increasing ethanol production from today’s 2 billion gallons a year to 16 billion gallons a year during the next 10 to 15 years.

That’s because even though there is existing research, conducted at the Agricultural Research Service and elsewhere, demonstrating technologies that will make ethanol production more competitive with gasoline, it’s hard to convince industry to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to retrofit a plant with new technology that hasn’t been tested on a large scale. The new plant emulates a commercial plant and will be built in modules so any part of the production line can be easily replaced to test new equipment.

Various organizations concerned with ethanol research, including the Illinois Corn Growers Association, the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, are sponsoring the plant.

ARS is administering the federal government’s contributions of $2 million for the design stage and $14 million of the $20 million construction project. The state of Illinois is providing the remaining $6 million.

At 23,000 square feet of floor space and with a capacity to produce 50,000 gallons of ethanol a year, the two-story plant will be the largest pilot ethanol plant in the country.

ARS will likely evaluate and demonstrate its latest ethanol products and processing techniques at this plant as the final stage before commercialization. Additional users will include other federal researchers, university researchers, ethanol companies and equipment vendors.

ARS conducts laboratory-scale ethanol research at its National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., as well as at the agency’s Western Regional Research Center at Albany, Calif., and Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pa.

Among the products ARS scientists might test at the new plant are new enzymes being developed to improve the efficiency and environmental soundness of ethanol production.