Versatile Ethanol

Distillation Unit

Who would have thought twenty years ago that a humdrum chemical like ethanol would become the focus of major new commercial activity in ways not even imagined at that time. It all started when the U.S. government mandated that an oxygenated fuel must be blended into gasoline to achieve clean engine combustion to reduce formation of smog. This gave birth to a major ethanol-from-corn industry, supported by a Federal subsidy.  In Brazil, some cars run on 100 percent sugar cane-derived ethanol, but in most countries car engines are not designed for that.

But it was soon realized that corn has serious drawbacks, both from an environmental standpoint  and because the rapidly rising demand for corn for alcohol production made corn more expensive for the food-related market. So now it is likely that bio-ethanol will within a few years start being produced from cellulosic feedstocks like wood chips, grasses and waste materials.

Now, in an interesting case of “What goes around, comes around” ethanol will soon become a feedstock for a major ethylene derivative, replacing ethylene made from

Courtesy: John Wiley& Sons

hydrocarbons. Actually, fermentation alcohol was used before and during World War II to make ethylene in the U.S. and elsewhere to produce ethylene, butadiene and other chemicals before ethylene was made directly by cracking hydrocarbons. In Pernambuco, Brazil, in the 1950s, a chemical industry was created to make various ethylene derivatives from sugar cane alcohol. Eventually, ethanol lost its role as a chemical feedstock as ethylene became the largest petrochemical at a very attractive price.

Now for the turnaround!  Dow Chemical and Mitsui & Co. recently teamed up in Brazil to build a complex that will effectively make polyethylene from sugar cane-based ethanol. This became a realistic proposition since crude oil-based naphtha, used in Brazil to make ethylene, has become quite expensive. Solvay, in a similar development, plans to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from ethylene derived from corn-based ethanol

And in other news for ethanol, Celanese recently announced a process that is said to produce ethanol from natural gas, using its carbonylatio technology to make acetic acid, which is then hydrogenated to ethanol.  The alcohol is aimed at the fuels market, though not in the U.S., where ethanol blended into gasoline must be produced from renewable raw materials. That could be done with biomass-derived synthesis gas.

With crude oil prices expected to stay high, there will be increasing interest to make “petrochemicals” from biomass. Let’s keep tracking this fascinating turnaround, while keeping in mind that regions where natural gas is cheap will continue as the low cost producers of basic petrochemicals.

Versatile ethanol: Fuel, chemical feedstock, smog fighter: Skol!

This entry was posted in Chemical Industry, Energy Industry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Versatile Ethanol

  1. Joe Pilaro says:

    USI fermented molasses to produce ethanol in the 1930’s and sold quantities for gasoline blending under a trademark, “Gasohol”. During WW-2 USI operated three ethanol-from-molasses plants to supply an ethanol-to-ethylene-to-butadiene plant in Kobuta, PA. The USI plants were at Newark, NJ; Baltimore, MD; and New Orleans,LA. Annual capacity was about 60 million gallons. The molasses source was mainly the Cuban and Puerto Rican rum producing industry.

  2. Peter Spitz says:


    I was hoping your would comment. For readers, USI was the successor company to National Distillers and Chemicals, one of the top distilled spirits producers in the U.S.. It went into the chemicals business as a result of being asked to produce chemicals from alcohol during the WW II war effort. When the natural gas pipelijnes were built in the late 1940s to bring gas to the Middle West and Northeast, so-called “straddle” plants were built to extract propane and ethane from the “wet” well gas coming up the pipeline to bring the heating value safely down to 1000 BTU/cf for domestic consumers. USI then built an ethane cracker at Tuscola, Illinois to make ethylene from some of the extracted hydrocarbons and discontinued ethylene production from alcohol. Instead it made industrial alcohol from ethylene! (There we go again). Much later, USI became Quantum Chemical, which was eventually merged in what is now Lyondell.

  3. Pingback: Edexcel IGCSE chemistry: how people damage the environment | Exam Hints

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.