Alcohol production is an age old trade which until modern times is firmly bound to agriculture. Next to agriculture itself the utilisation of fermentation to produce beer and wines represents one of the oldest cultural acts of mankind. Off course for a long time no one knew that certain micro organisms are involved in these valuable conversions. Drawings and findings of rudimentary distillation equipment prove that already in ancient times stronger spirits found clients. Today alcohol represents a modern, rapid growing industry.
In summer 2002 the Federal Ministry of Finance released legal tax liberations for biofuel from ethanol as an additive to fossil fuels (referring to EU-directive 92/81/EWG Art.8.No.4.) and brought into the public a discussion which already was intensively proceeding. Approximately 32O million hl (32 billion l) of ethanol are produced whereof approximately. 42 million. hl or 13 percent are covered by European countries. Referring to different sources the EU-target for the year 2010 is around 400 million hl. Largest European producers are Russia and France (see table 1). Germany currently produces almost 4 million hl equally divided into potable and technical alcohol, representing a self sufficiency rate of approximately 62 percent.
Next to the production of neutral spirits for drinks, food and technical purposes around 62 % of all alcohol worldwide is produced for fuel. The raw materials of most importance are sugar cane in Latin America and corn in North America. They provide high contents of sugars an starch which can be utilised by yeast after their conversion into glucose and other sugars by enzymes. The bagasse derived from the utilisation of molasses is difficult to recover but the stillage derived from corn is marketed as a dried product “cornglutenfeed” (Dried Distillers Grains and Solubles, DDGS) in Europe. Corn as raw material is unattractive for Europe but sugar beet, potatoes and cereal grains are already in use.
The vinasse of fermentation of molasses is not commonly used in animal nutrition due to its` low nutrient profile. Often the remaining energy of vinasse is recycled into the circuit of the distillery through multistep methane fermentations, whereby the cost per unit of produced ethanol can be reduced. The development of this technology speeds up making facilities releasing almost potable water seem possible soon.
The main disadvantage of this approach also observed in the Latin American very competitive sugar cane based biofuel production lies in its sole focus on the production of ethanol. Despite lacking flexibility the major advantages of the use of cane is the cheaper raw material, the obvious regional advantage and the lower need capital for capital to set up large dimensioned dry-houses. Currently these operations are the cheapest sources of ethanol on the world market and represent the model newcomers like India might choose.
Drive on schnaps
Across the Atlantic the economies decided not only to support but legally forced the addition of ethanol to fossil fuels. Fairly new to us Europeans, there it represents a long tradition reaching back to the first series car model at the beginning of the 20th century. It was Henry Ford who designed the Ford-T-Model, Tin Lizzy to operate on ethanol and he already had visions for agriculture as supplier of fuel.
Today Europe views upon fuelalcohol with regard to climate protection (Kjioto-Agreements) and potential new markets for agriculture. After the introduction of biodiesel and the subvention of cultivating renewable raw materials this approach is not new to the industry but it soon could be shown that diesel cannot satisfy all energy markets and that the public views upon the net energy balance of the entire concept. The question if the process can lead to a net reduction of CO2-emissions after accounting crop cultivation, refinery, processing and disposal is permanently discussed. In addition the question of public acceptance for genetically modified plants providing higher yields remains unanswered.
The net energy balance of alcohol production has not always been clearly positive but the industry had experienced some major breakthroughs within the last decade.The natural selection of an extreme thermostable yeast has lead to fermentations with far higher temperatures than common and reached up to 2 percent alcohol in laboratory conditions representation a huge step compared to the typical 13 or 14 percent. This higher fermentation temperature helps to save cooling energy and production time and enables a more complete fermentation of mash. The enzymes added to the raw materials to break down starch have also gone through a revolution. The rediscovery of the age old technology of solid state fermentation (Koji) creates stronger performing and temperature tolerant enzyme complexes which not only break down starch and sugars but also attack cellulose and hemicelluloses.
Not only has the biological part of fermentation, but engineering itself experienced some progress too. The requirement of water is significantly reduced, new sanitation management decreases the risk of infection and the molecular sieve enables to yield almost pure alcohol after distillation. The legitimate concern about a negative energy balance can be overcome by taking the full concept of “fermentation of grain” into consideration. With respect to the balances of energy, greenhouse gas and economics cereals perform best if the feed values of by-products are taken into account.
For agriculture from agriculture
After running through the fermentation process cereal grains deliver feedstuffs of far higher value than corn, potatoes or sugar beet currently can. Based on protein contents of 40 percent or more and an amioacid composition suitable for monogastrics these fermented cereals could possibly serve a wider market than only the common use for dairy diets. But the price for ethanol makes these distillers compete with the world market, because as object to free trade fuel alcohol does not fall under any regulatory means – a hard fight.
The European Union is predicted to have an output of 7 million tons of dried fermented feed, whereof Germany alone will produce 1 million. German distilleries must therefore purchase up to 3 million tons of grain. But besides a few small scale pilot projects these factories only exist on paper to date. The main issue now, is to try avoiding the mistakes which the American ethanol industry had gone through. From more than 250 investments that started the business there 20 years go only two major companies survived. The failure of these operations is manly based one significant mistake: A lack of understanding for the potential for the by-products as feedstuffs. The remaining co-product was most often thrown into agriculture for free our just cost price. German schnaps distilleries proceed similarly but base their income on the branded product or special beverage quality neutral spirits. But for fuel ethanol the price is fixed and only marketing by-products allows economical flexibility.
A high return for the produced feedstuffs is very realistic. A European product meeting f.e. QS-criteria, produced by a natural fermentation process with all regulations of the feed law taken into account is exactly what the industry would welcome today. Across the Atlantic these developments are followed with concern, because around 20 percent of all by products produced in North America are exported to Europe and strong efforts are put into the search for further usages of DDGS such as secondary fermentation steps to produce feedstuffs of added value.
Visions become reality
The modern approach shows the production of added value feeds with ethanol as a by-product. But no matter which target the distillers focus on, the biological and technical progress will affect the economics of all products. A more efficient mash preparation not only leads to a more efficient fermentation but also leads to reduced requirements for water and drying energy and produces feed with less fibre. An efficient fermentation achieves a higher content of more valuable protein. Advanced technologies in distillation and alcohol separation lead to higher alcohol yields. Advanced dry house design makes feed production cheaper and an efficient plant operation produces feeds of homogenous quality which the industry is looking for. As 8 or 9 percent ethanol from fermentation where common, the discussion about 14 percent was regarded as utopia. Today smoothly operating plants in North America reach 17 to 18 or even up to 19 percent of ethanol. Prof. Ingledew from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada suggests ethanol yields of above 20 percent from fermentation as future standard. The increased efficiency of the entire system is also of major importance for the evaluation of ethanol as an ecologically balanced energy source by the public. Until recently ecological reports based on outdated material rather promoted the utilisation of biogas or wood.
The fermentation of grain generally implies the reduction of anti-nutritive effects, an increase of the availability of minerals (phosphorus), a partial break down of fibre and a significant increase of protein content with improved rumen stability. Because the fermentation process generally causes a concentration of nutrients it also bear risks which only can be overcome by a maximum of caution when purchasing raw material and running the facility. The content of several unwanted Ingredients such as heavy metals or mycotoxins also increases in the final product. Previously this represented one advantage of alcoholic product from the distillation process because unwanted particles remained in the stillage. Fusarium toxins are not decomposed through mash preparation and fermentation and are found in double concentration in the final product compared to the raw material. This phenomenon means also previously relatively low concentrated toxins such a fusaric acid or T2 reach a critical level. The fermentation process itself remains rather unaffected by concentration of toxin because referring to the sensitivity of yeasts far higher levels than in animal nutrition are discussed.
Distillers that wish to produce feed must apply high quality standards – similar to those in the brewing industry – when purchasing raw material from agriculture and must use them as sales arguments when promoting their product. Besides purity not protein content and viscosity but starch and moisture dictate the price, because minor variations of these parameters are directly related to the alcohol yield. The idea of using bioethanol plants as an ideal tool to process low class material or dump non tradable grains is quickly overcome. New or simply different quality criteria rain the market wherein lies the great opportunity of domestic products versus imported feeds.
Whether to increase octane levels or as alternative fuel or as hydrogen carrier for the fuelcell bio-ethanol will come to Europe. Worldwide activities and investments clearly show that regardless any temporary political currents ethanol will be part of our future energy supply.
The potential ability of by-products to meet even stricter feed and food quality guidelines provides major opportunities for these projects through:
- Cost effective production of renewable energy possibly independent from subsidies
- New markets for agricultural good with obvious advantages for marginal regions
- New employment opportunities
- New technology
- Further European independence in energy and new European sources of feed protein
The challenges for the European ethanol industry include:
- To prove positive greenhouse-gas balance
- To achieve a long-term economic efficiency
- To achieve a high feed quality
- Market feeds for pigs an poultry
- Independence from direct subsidies
- Competition with cheaper ethanol markets