|Corn density (gray shading), existing ethanol production in the Midwest (red circles) and new plant construction (green circles). Click to enlarge. Source: CSX|
Senators Tom Harkin (D, IA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) have introduced a bill (S. 4003) that would direct the Department of Energy to study the feasibility of constructing one or more dedicated ethanol pipelines for distribution of the fuel from the Midwest to the East and West.
Among the considerations specified by the Senators for the project—which could cost up to $1 million—are scenarios for ethanol production volumes of 20-, 30-, and 40-billion gallons per year by 2020. In 2005, the US produced 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol.
Currently, ethanol is shipped by rail tanker cars, barges, and trucks, but not generally by pipeline.
Water—and rust and other impurities—can collect in oil and fuel pipelines. Although the water remains in place when contacted by petroleum-based hydrocarbons, ethanol absorbs the water and the impurities, ultimately affecting the quality of the gasoline. Most providers therefore have shied away from using pipelines for that reason, as well as the economics of pipeline transport for relatively low volumes of product.
Williams Bio-Energy may be the most notable exception. The company ships neat fuel ethanol via pipelines in the midwest. The company suggests a number of steps the shipper must take to reduce problems with absorption:
- Closed floater storage tanks to prevent rainwater ingestion;
- A commitment to dry storage tanks;
- Installation of inline corrosion monitoring;
- Possible installation of filtration system;
- Materials compatibility review;
- Frequent de-watering of mainlines using pigs and spheres;
- Ethanol QA oversight program; and
- Updated safety documentation & training.
Shipping of large batches of ethanol through the pipeline can also minimize the potential for contamination by water, petroleum products, or pipeline deposits.
Another consideration noted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in an earlier study is:
...the fact that most pipelines originate in the Gulf Coast running north, northeast, and northwest. With most ethanol plants located in the Midwest it would still be necessary to transport product south by barge to access would still be necessary to transport product south by barge to access many pipeline markets.
Furthermore, as ethanol production expands rail tanker cars, barges, and trucks may encounter capacity limits due to competing uses.
Petrobras, the Brazilian state-run oil giant, is working on an ethanol pipeline system for that country.
Pipeline Considerations for Ethanol (Kansas State Univesisty)
Ethanol Delivering (CSX)