It is not uncommon to drive past Wisconsin corn fields, but how many of us stop to think about how the common crop can keep us moving in our everyday lives? Traveling the state in style, my car, Maizey, definitely attracts a lot of attention. She is wrapped in ears of corn because Maizey is a flex-fuel vehicle powered by E85 or ethanol.
Impact of Ethanol
While fueling up with E85 this June, I had a gentleman ask me at the gas pump why I use ethanol. “Isn’t that precious food stuff?” he asked. The type of corn used to make ethanol is “No. 2 Yellow.” It is not the sweet corn or the canned corn found in grocery stores. Only 3 percent of this corn goes directly into food products as corn meal, oil, syrup or starch. In fact, ethanol may help lower the cost of all food items in the grocery store as one of the largest factor in food prices is transportation and ethanol reduces the cost of fuel.
Wisconsin’s agriculture industry thrives because it is so diverse, and ethanol is a key part of that diversity. Wisconsin’s nine ethanol plants make more than 500 million gallons a year, putting Wisconsin among the top 10 ethanol-producing states in the country. Our ethanol plants use about 37 percent of the state’s corn crops, generate $4.2 billion in economic activity and impact 19,000 in the state, according to the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.
Recently, I had the chance to visit United Wisconsin Grain Producers (UWGP) to learn more about the biofuel and how it is made.
Producing corn power
Corn-based ethanol has a positive net energy balance which mean sit takes less energy to make than we get from the product. To compare, the USDA said for every unit of energy used to make gasoline, there are 0.8 units of energy returned. Constantly improving their output, UWGP currently produces 63 million gallons of ethanol a year.
Purchasing their corn within a 60-mile radius, UWGP grinds nearly 58,000 bushels a day making 175,000 gallons. Dan Wegner, UWGP commodity manager, said it is a similar process to brewing beer, but they strive for volume, not taste. Using starch from corn, UWGP converts the starch into sugar with enzymes. They ferment it with yeast that feeds on the sugars. In total, it only takes about 72 hours to turn the starch into ethanol. Because it is such a biological process, UWGP has lab staff on hand to test the product for quality and look for ways to improve their methods.
Everything left after fermentation is reused. For example, UWGP said it is one of three ethanol plants in the world providing A+ Pro Yeast. It is a 48 percent protein yeast ingredient that can be used as a palatable protein source for dairy, swine, poultry, aqua-culture, and increasingly pet food markets. The operation ships 28,000 tons of A+ Pro Yeast each year.
Nearly 113,000 tons of distillers grain also leaves the plant annually mostly going to local livestock operations. Distillers grains are a principal co-product of ethanol. The grain is a high protein, high-energy animal feed supplement. Lastly, UWGP ships about 2.5 million gallons of crude corn oil annually. Corn oil can be a key component in making biodiesel, or it can be utilized as a renewable fat source in animal nutrition.
Fueling adventures with ethanol
Now that there is an understanding of how ethanol is made, how can the product be used? Ethanol is now found in all regular gasoline in Wisconsin because of its clean air benefit. Almost all modern vehicles can use E10 or 10 percent ethanol. Using higher blends of ethanol like E85 will require flex-fuel vehicles.
Ethanol can be good for your car. Ethanol-blended fuel helps keep engines clean. It can also help prevent wintertime problems by acting as a gas-line antifreeze. There is little difference in gas mileage using ethanol. While riding in Maizey, I save money at the pump by fueling with ethanol, which offsets the costs of any gas mileage lost. In addition, using corn-based ethanol lowers greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 60 percent compared to gasoline, according to the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.
The next time you need to make a pit stop in Americas Dairyland, consider the power of corn. Apps make it easy to find E85 pumps near you to help fuel your adventure in agriculture.