EGEE 439
Alternative Fuels from Biomass Sources

7.1 Ethanol Production - General Information

7.1 Ethanol Production - General Information

Back in Lesson 2, I included a chemistry tutorial on some of the basic constituents of fuels. In Lesson 7, we will be discussing the production of ethanol (CH3-CH2-OH) and butanol (CH3-CH2-CH2-CH2-OH) from starch and sugar. Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is a chemical that is volatile, colorless, and flammable. It can be produced from petroleum via chemical transformation of ethylene, but it can also be produced by fermentation of glucose, using yeast or other microorganisms; current fuel ethanol plants make ethanol via fermentation.

The basic formula for making ethanol from sugar glucose is as follows:

C 6 H 12 O 6 2 C 2 H 5 OH+2CO 2 This equation is not rendering properly due to an incompatible browser. See Technical Requirements in the Orientation for a list of compatible browsers.

chemical structure of glucose
Figure 7.a1 Chemical Structure of Glucose
Credit: Wikiwand

For fermentation, yeast is needed (other enzymes are used but yeast is most common), a sugar such as glucose is the carbon source, and anaerobic conditions (without oxygen) must be present. If you have aerobic (with oxygen) conditions, the sugar will be completely converted into CO2 with little ethanol produced. Other nutrients include water, a nitrogen source, and micronutrients.

Here in the US, the current common method of ethanol fuel production comes from starches, such as corn, wheat, and potatoes. The starch is hydrolyzed into glucose before proceeding with the rest of the process. In Brazil, sucrose, or sugar in sugarcane is the most common feedstock. And in Europe, the most common feed is sugar beets. Cellulose is being used in developing methods, which includes wood, grasses, and crop residues. It is considered developing, because converting the cellulose into glucose is more challenging than in starches and sugars.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that ethanol will constitute two-thirds of the global growth in conventional biofuels with biodiesel and hydrotreated vegetable oil accounting the remaining part (2018-2023). Global ethanol production is estimated to increase by 14% from about 120 bln L in 2017 to approximately 131 bln L by 2027 (Figure 7.1). Brazil will accomodate fifty per cent of this increase and will be used to fill in the domestic demand (OECD/FAO (2018), “OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook”).


Figure 7.1:  Development of the world ethanol market.
Credit: OECD/FAO (2018), “OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook”, OECD Agriculture statistics (database),

World production of ethanol based by country is shown in Figure 7.2. The US produces the most ethanol worldwide (~57%), primarily from corn. Brazil is the next largest producer with 27%, primarily from sugarcane. Other countries, including Australia, Columbia, India, Peru, Cuba, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe, are also beginning to produce ethanol from sugarcane.

pie chart of world ethanol production as described in the text
Figure 7.2: World ethanol production by country, in percent.

Figure 7.3a shows the growth of sugarcane in the world, in tropical or temperate regions. Sugar beet production in Europe is the other source of sugar for ethanol. It is grown in more northern regions than sugarcane, primarily in Europe and a small amount in the US. Figure 7.3b shows the growth of sugar beets in the world.

world map showing sugarcane production concentrated in central and South America, some in Africa, and Southern Asia
Figure 7.3a: Sugarcane production around the world. The dark green represents the areas of greatest production.
world map showing sugar beet production concentrated in Europe with some production in rural United States
Figure 7.3b: Sugar beet production around the world. The dark green represents the areas of greatest production.