The more popular ethanol has become, the more it rides the nation’s rails. An estimated 70 percent of ethanol produced in the U.S. is delivered by railroad, said Kristy Moore, technical director of the Renewable Fuels Association.
The more popular ethanol has become, the more it rides the nation’s rails.
An estimated 70 percent of ethanol produced in the U.S. is delivered by railroad, said Kristy Moore, technical director of the Renewable Fuels Association.
“Rail has been, continues to be and is expected to be the major transport mechanism to get ethanol from a production facility to consumer markets,” Moore said. “There’s always going to be the economy of rail and the availability. There are railroad tracks crisscrossing the Midwest, where the majority of ethanol is produced. Rail has access, control terminals and is cheaper than anything else right now.”
In 2007, the most recent year data is available, U.S. railroads moved 120,000 carloads of ethanol, according to the Association of American Railroads. That’s a 20 percent increase from 2006. Still, ethanol makes up less than 1 percent of rail freight.
Most ethanol plants are in the Midwest, but because fuel consumption is highest on the coasts, ethanol has to travel great distances to get to gas pumps. Producers also use trucks and barges to move the fuel.
Ethanol is denatured, or made undrinkable, with about 5 percent of gasoline before it’s transported across the country. It doesn’t become a commercially ready fuel until it reaches terminals, where it’s blended with more gasoline to make E10, which is regular gasoline, or E85.
Moving ethanol by pipeline long has been considered a risky and expensive proposition.
According to a policy paper by the Association of Oil Pipelines and American Petroleum Institute, ethanol is highly water soluble, meaning even small amounts of water can be picked up as it flows through a pipeline. In current pipelines carrying more than one product, small amounts of water enter the pipelines system through the fuels, as well as at terminals and tank roofs.
Although that’s not a problem for other products, such as gasoline, water contaminates the ethanol and makes it unsuitable for use. Ethanol must contain no more than 1 percent water in order to be used as fuel, according to the paper.
Also, there’s evidence that ethanol in pipelines has led to corrosion and weakened the joints or weld spots of the pipelines.
But pipeline transport continues to be researched. Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, a Florida company, announced in December that it is transporting batches of denatured ethanol, similar to the kind in the Canadian National Railway train that derailed, through a modified pipeline between Tampa and Orlando.
The company spent $10 million chemically cleaning the pipeline, replacing equipment and expanding storage capacity at the company’s Orlando facility to handle the ethanol, according to a company statement.
Ethanol is considered a hazardous material by the federal government because it is flammable.
Railroads are required by federal law to transport hazardous materials even if they don’t want to because they’re considered “common carriers.”
There are no specially designated tracks for hazardous materials, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau, and railroads can use any track above a certain condition level. The mainline CN track in Rockford meets that level, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
“Because these materials move over a large portion of the national rail network by necessity, there’s what we would call a very robust safety regime in place,” Flatau said.
Ethanol usually travels in 30,000-gallon tanker cars that can be used for a variety of liquids.
Moore said Department of Transportation guidelines call for about 1 percent of each car to remain empty to allow the ethanol to expand and contract with changes in temperature, but otherwise cars largely run full.
Stronger steel tanks, couplers to prevent cars from crashing into each other and other steps help prevent a rupture of a tank, said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. Accidents involving leaks or other release of hazardous materials are very rare, he said. In terms of incidents per ton mile, rail transport is 16 times safer than highway transport, White said.
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What is ethanol? Ethanol is a renewable fuel made from various plant materials, including corn, which are collectively called “biomass.” Ethanol contains the same chemical compound found in alcoholic beverages.
How is it made? There are two production processes: wet milling and dry milling. The main difference between the two is in the initial treatment of the grain.
In dry milling, the entire corn kernel or other starchy grain is first ground into flour and processed without separating out the various component parts of the grain. The ground grain is slurried with water to form a mash. Enzymes and ammonia are added, then the mash is processed in a high-temperature cooker. The mash is cooled and transferred to fermenters where yeast is added and the conversion of sugar to ethanol and carbon dioxide begins.
In wet milling, the grain is soaked in water and diluted sulfurous acid, then processed through a series of grinders to separate the corn germ. Other extraneous parts are extracted, then the steeping liquor is concentrated in an evaporator. After more products are removed, the starch and any remaining water from the mash can then be fermented into ethanol.
How is it used? Ethanol has been used for 30 years as a gasoline additive; nearly half the gas in the country is blended with low levels of ethanol to reduce air pollution. Ethanol is also the main ingredient in E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
What are common dangers in its production? Possible hazards include grain dust explosions, rescues of workers from large grain storage facilities, fires in the drying facilities. Ethanol and many of its byproducts are very flammable and easily ignited.
Sources: Illinois Fire Service Institute, Renewable Fuel Association