NEC: Finding new uses for ethanol

By Matt Thompson | February 12, 2020

Panel discussions during the second day of the 2020 National Ethanol Conference in Houston, Texas, began by exploring new uses for ethanol.

Keegan O’Donnell, in new product engineering for gas power systems at General Electric, spoke about using ethanol in gas turbine power plants and the possibility of using ethanol for power generation. “We want to be able to have a fuel that’s clean and that we might possibly want to vaporize,” O’Donnell said. Vaporizing ethanol means it can be blended with natural gas, or used as a natural gas substitute, he added.

And the energy industry would potentially use a large amount of ethanol. O’Donnell gave an example of one power plant in south Texas that produces 1 gigawatt of power every second. “If we would run that plant on ethanol alone, we’d need 1.6 million gallons of ethanol a day to run it.”

O’Donnell said GE sees ethanol as a potential backup fuel source, a primary fuel source for certain power plants, and in combined-heat-and-power applications.

He said GE alone could be a multi-billion-gallon market for ethanol. “We have 32,000 megawatts of installed backup liquid fuel capacity on GE gas turbine in the U.S. alone,” he said. “These could use 15 billion gallons of ethanol in only 20 days of operation.”

O’Donnell said GE has already started using ethanol in some plants, including one in Brazil that’s been running for 10 years.

Also on the panel was Prabhakar Nair, vice president of business development for LanzaTech, who outlined LanzaTech’s efforts to produce ethanol using waste gas from production facilities, and using ethanol as a feedstock for producing chemicals. “Ethanol can be a feedstock for a multiplicity of chemicals that are an integral part of the current needs globally,” Nair said. He added that companies like Pepsi are committed to using more sustainable packaging.

Nair also said LanzaTech has used ethanol as a feedstock to produce aviation fuel. That fuel was used to power a commercial flight in 2018.

The panel’s final speaker was BJ Johnson, CEO of ClearFlame Engines, a company that is trying to use ethanol in heavy duty diesel applications. “While diesel is a high-performance system, it is coupled to its dirty emissions and until today, we haven’t had a great way to use ethanol in transportation that wasn’t sacrificing some of that heavy-duty performance,” Johnson said.

But, he said, ClearFlame is able burn ethanol in a stock diesel engine, by adding a high-temperature combustion system. “Because we’re not really fundamentally changing the engine design, there’s no major change for [original equipment manufacturers] in terms of how they’re producing diesel engines or diesel styling,” Johnson said.

And the diesel engine market could be a big one for ethanol, he added. “Penetration of the ClearFlame technology in 20 percent of the U.S. transport sector—so that’s just looking at class A on-road trucks in the U.S. alone—that would require 15 billion gallons of ethanol solutions,” Johnson said.