Ethanol to Drink

Anyone working in the ethanol industry has heard the joke about drinking their work. For a few, however, ethanol for human consumption is no laughing matter.
By Holly Jessen | June 10, 2010
In the United States, about 12 billion gallons of fuel ethanol was produced in 2009. In the same year, beverage alcohol totaled only about 1.2 billion gallons. That number includes 905 million gallons of wine and beer produced in the U.S. plus another 337 million gallons of distilled spirits bottled in the U.S. for domestic use, according to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau records.

Looking at the two industries side by side brings up a question. Could an ethanol plant already producing fuel ethanol also produce ethanol to drop an olive in and drink out of a martini glass? Johannes "Hans" Van Leeuwen, professor of environmental and biological engineering at Iowa State University, thinks ethanol plants should reach out and grab a share of the alcohol market. "It's nothing to be sniffed at," says the researcher, who's working on perfecting a way to purify raw ethanol for beverage purposes.

Drink It or Burn It
A few ethanol producers are already making it work. Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company in Benson, Minn., has been producing vodka alongside fuel and industrial grade ethanol since 2002. Ethanol producer Archer Daniels Midland Co. produces both fuel and beverage alcohol—vodka and gin—from corn.

The amount of ethanol for human consumption produced by CVEC is just a drop in the bucket compared to the total U.S. numbers. The ethanol plant's nameplate capacity is 45 MMgy, but Mike Jerke, general manager of CVEC, won't say exactly how that's divided among fuel, industrial ethanol and alcohol to drink. "The vast majority is fuel and continues to be fuel," he says. "But we have seen some really nice growth in the specialty areas."

The plant's first foray into the world of alcohol for human consumption was with Shakers, the premium vodka it produces for Infinite Spirits. "It's a good vodka," says Jerke. "I think anybody that has done a little tasting would recognize that."

Besides Shakers, CVEC also produces ethanol for about half a dozen other companies that use it in various whiskies, vodkas, flavored vodkas and bourbons. Recently, the plant went though the rigorous certification process to produce certified organic products, such as CROP Organic Vodka and Prairie Organic Vodka, he says.

At CVEC, the fermentation pathways for fuel, industrial ethanol and beverage ethanol are very different, starting with the feedstocks. The plant takes in No. 2 field corn for fuel and industrial ethanol production, as well as rye and wheat to make two separate flavors of vodka, and organically grown corn for Prairie Organic Vodka, Jerke says.

Fermentation of fuel ethanol and industrial grade ethanol does sometimes overlap for part of the process. However, for the most part, fermentation of the different types of alcohol is quite different, though Jerke didn't specify how. "It's considerably more involved for the industrial side and an additional step further for beverage grade," he says. Despite those limiting factors, the plant does have some flexibility to shift production, depending on profit margins. Producing alcohol for more than one use helps CVEC mitigate risk. "I think that's the key," Jerke says. "Diversification really is the key in our industry, with as volatile as commodity markets are."

Production of beverage alcohol requires a distilled spirits permit, which CVEC has through its company Glacial Grains Spirits LLC. The permit allows CVEC to ship an undenatured, consumable product, so the vodka can be bottled and labeled off site. A distilled spirits permit is quite different from a fuel ethanol permit, according to Art Resnick, director of public and media affairs for the Tax and Trade Bureau. "The procedure to qualify as a distilled spirits plant is a lot more complex than that required of an alcohol fuel plant," he tells EPM.

The vodka and gin produced by Archer Daniels Midland are all made from the same corn that is used to make fuel, Beth Chandler, company spokesperson, told EPM. The ADM plant in Peoria, Ill., produces fuel, industrial grade alcohol and a high-proof grain neutral spirit that is used as a stock to make beverage alcohols like vodka. The plant in Clinton, Iowa, has the capability of producing fuel alcohol as well as vodka and gin, although currently the plant is making gin from beverage alcohol shipped in from the Peoria plant. "One of the benefits of producing both fuel and beverage-grade alcohol at one plant is that the milling and feed processing part of processing the corn can be shared for a number of different grades of alcohol products," Chandler says.

In all, ADM produces a total of 24 products from corn, including food ingredients, animal feed, fuel ethanol and beverage alcohol. All the products are made by separating No. 2 dent field corn into corn oil, for cooking oil; corn fiber and hulls, for animal feed; corn gluten, used in poultry feed; and corn starch, which is converted into dextrose, a sugar. Besides being the main ingredient for ethanol, dextrose is used to make high fructose corn syrup to sweeten soft drinks and baked goods or xanthan gum to provide body, texture and stability in things such as salad dressings, gravies and sauces. Dextrose is also used to make biodegradable plastics at the company's first commercial bioplastics facility, which is co-located with the ethanol plant in Clinton, she says.

ADM isn't the only big name ethanol company that has experience producing ethanol for multiple uses. In the 1990s, Abengoa Bioenergy, then High Plains Corp., made a beverage product at its ethanol plant location in York, Neb. "We later decided that our future was in fuel ethanol rather than beverage," says Christopher G. Standlee, executive vice president of Abengoa, "and the additional distillation equipment used for the industrial and beverage quality alcohols was removed and moved to another plant for expansion purposes there."

The World's Purest Vodka
Around six hours south of CVEC's plant, startup company Mell O3z LLC (pronounced mellows) has developed a patent-pending process using ozone and granular, activated carbon to remove impurities from diluted neutral grain spirits, or ethanol. Mell O3z's concept is that a standard fuel ethanol plant could, after further distillation, use its process for purification and market undenatured corn ethanol as the purest vodka on the market. "That sounds like snake oil talk, but I can tell you that there are good scientific reasons for making that statement," says Van Leeuwen, vice president of Mell O3z.

In the U.S., chlorine is used for 95 percent of disinfection and purification, while in Europe, ozone is more widely used. Since he's familiar with the use of ozone for purification, Van Leeuwen started with cheap brandy and whiskey, "really rotgut stuff," he says, and used ozone to turn it into something not exactly high class, but drinkable. In other words, although the process won't turn a $5 bottle of alcohol into a $30 bottle, it will improve the $5 bottle. "You can get from $5 to $10 with our process, with only pennies," he says, adding that the process can be used with multiple feedstocks for the manufacture of vodka as well as other items like cough syrup and mouthwash.

Van Leeuwen is working with Jacek Koziel, an ISU associate professor, and Lingshuang Cai, an analytical chemist, to analyze raw ethanol on a chemical and sensory level in novel ways. From a chemical standpoint, Koziel says, there are a lot of similarities between the aromatic compounds in wine and hog waste, both substances he has analyzed in the lab. For example, a chemical and sensory analysis of a commercial alcohol might identify sulfur containing compounds producing a skunky sewer-like odor, leftover volatile fatty acids that smell like body odor or phenolics that give a barnyard or smoky smell.
In the lab, researchers compared 13 commercial vodkas to the new product, purified by ozone, Cai says. One very smelly vodka contained as many as 49 impurities—including some that are simply not healthy for a human to ingest. Although the researchers were careful not to say a brand name, they did say the product is very expensive vodka. The majority of the vodkas didn't smell quite so bad and contained about 20 to 30 impurities. Only two had about 10 impurities. "There are a lot of bad smells from those commercial vodkas," Cai says.

Smell is very important to taste, Van Leeuwen says. While the mouth is only sensitive to four or five of the most basic flavors, the nose is actually very sophisticated. Everything else humans taste is done through the nose. "It's ultimately up to the consumer to evaluate something with their noses and decide if they will buy it or not," Koziel explains.

There's still more work to be done. The technology works in a lab scale and a small pilot scale. The next step, Koziel says, is to ramp it up to full pilot and commercial scale. "We think we know how to bring it up to the next level," he says. "The core of technology is there."

Negotiations to commercialize the technology in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are ongoing, Van Leeuwen says. Although they're not ready to release details yet, Mell O3z is working with a company in California that wants to commercialize it. The goal is to work with an ethanol plant in Iowa that is currently making fuel ethanol, and convert the plant to ethanol production for human consumption. In the future, other ethanol plants could potentially add consumable ethanol as a value-added product for a relatively low cost. "We all know that booze costs a lot more than gas does, so there's obviously a big benefit," he says. EP

Holly Jessen is associate editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at (701) 738-4946 or [email protected].