Final Report: Small-Scale Fuel Alcohol Production to Meet University Vehicle Fuel Needs and Promote Regional Sustainable Development

EPA Grant Number: SU833537
Title: Small-Scale Fuel Alcohol Production to Meet University Vehicle Fuel Needs and Promote Regional Sustainable Development
Investigators: Steward, Brian , Altoe, Leandra , Birrell, Stuart , Brumm, Thomas J. , Haegele, Jason , Hermsdorff, W. , Martinez, Marisol , Oliveira, Delly , Sousa e Silva, J. de , Swanson, Eric , Swanson, Stephanie , Vieira, Alberto , Visser, Evan , de Andrade, Marcel Antonionni
Institution: Iowa State University , Federal University of Vicosa
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: I
Project Period: September 1, 2007 through August 31, 2008
Project Amount: $13,536
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2007) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Challenge Area - Energy , P3 Awards , Sustainability


The overall goal of this project was to develop small-scale, distributed ethanol production systems in the context of closed-loop, diversified agricultural production systems. This project was applied to two regions. The first was the region surrounding the Federal University of Vi├žosa (UFV) in the state of Minas Gerais (Brazil) as an approach to achieve energy independence and sustainable development in the region. The second region was in central Iowa. Two similar small-scale ethanol production systems were investigated using sugarcane feedstock in Brazil and sweet sorghum in Iowa. Economic and life-cycle models of the systems were developed as a means for evaluating the feasibility and potential success of different system configurations as well as for uncovering technical innovations required to develop small scale, low-input and reliable systems for bioenergy conversion. Specifically, the project had four objectives:

1.To innovatively design and build low-cost, small scale biomass combustion, fermentation and distillation systems for low-income agricultural producers. 2. To use systems-level economic and life-cycle models to analyze the effects of such technologies on regional sustainability factors such as land use, producer income, and carbon emissions. 3. To investigate the applicability of small-scale ethanol production technology to the developed world as well as the developing world. 4. Integration of P3 concepts as an educational tool through providing hands-on learning experiences in which students can learn how to make informed decisions and engineering judgments about the sustainability of biorenewable production systems.

This project benefits people since local farmers, the majority of which are small, low-income agricultural producers, may be engaged as suppliers of ethanol. Prosperity is addressed because a local, renewable source of fuel benefits both the local community and the university through creation of jobs and reallocation of resources. Displacement of petroleum based sources of transportation fuel benefits the planet through reduction of CO2 emissions. The technology developed through this project will be demonstrated at both UFV and Iowa State University and be integrated into sustainable engineering and biorenewables course modules. The technology developed through the project is expected to promote regional development through job creation and increased utilization of locally produced agricultural commodities. Project evaluation will be based on the adoption of the technology developed.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

  1. The small scale sweet sorghum ethanol production system in Iowa has good potential for development based on an economic analysis with rates of return ranging from 12% to 32 % for ethanol prices ranging from $1.66/gal to $2.20/gal. A scale of 300 acres (121 ha) for producing sweet sorghum is reasonable based anticipated equipment size and capital costs.
  2. Sweet sorghum ethanol has advantages over corn grain ethanol because its expected yield is two times or more greater than corn grain and its energy balance is substantially greater. Disadvantages include a currently undeveloped infrastructure and the instability of the fermentable carbohydrates produced by sweet sorghum.
  3. From a technology perspective, the greatest need for development is in the area of sweet sorghum harvesting and juice extraction. While much has been done in this area for the sugarcane industry, little knowledge is available for sweet sorghum.
  4. For the Brazil context, the small scale ethanol production system is feasible from a technology standpoint and could be implemented without substantial changes in the lives of the agricultural producers. The most substantial barriers exist in the formation of a proper business relationship, such as a cooperative, for ethanol collection, purchase, distillation, and final sale, as well as legal barriers to cooperative sale due to the regulation of the ethanol distribution industry.
  5. Because this project involved international collaboration, the participants have been able take ideas from one cultural context and apply them to another culture. This type of experience has been extremely very rewarding and has helped develop cultural adaptability competency in the members of the student team. Lessons learned will continue to be incorporated into other courses.


Small scale ethanol production using sweet sorghum in central Iowa and sugarcane in the Vicosa region of Minas Gerais, Brazil has economic viability and environmental advantages over other forms of biorenewable energy. Challenges to implementation include lack of harvesting and appropriate scale juice extraction equipment for sweet sorghum and agribusiness and legal barriers in Brazil.

Proposed Phase II Objectives and Strategies:
The objectives of the Phase II project will be to (1) investigate sugar extraction efficiency from sweet sorghum and sugarcane in parallel experiments in ISU and UFV labs, respectively, (2) determine extraction efficiency and power requirements for small scale juice extraction equipment, (3) uncover barriers for implementation and (4) implement lab-scale ethanol biorefineries at ISU and UFV for testing, education in a sustainable engineering course, biorenewable technology courses and other courses, and demonstration to the public.

Supplemental Keywords:

biorenewable energy, engineering, sustainable development, agriculture, energy independency; systems approach; biomass, ethanol; Iowa; Brazil; sugarcane; sweet sorghum,, RFA, Scientific Discipline, Sustainable Industry/Business, POLLUTION PREVENTION, Sustainable Environment, Energy, Technology for Sustainable Environment, Environmental Engineering, sustainable development, environmental sustainability, alternative materials, biomass, alternative fuel, biodiesel fuel, energy efficiency, energy technology, alternative energy source

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