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Senators Harkin and Lugar Introduce Ethanol Pipeline Study Bill

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.




They can barge it. There are the Missouri, Arkansas, Ohio, and Mississippi river systems (plus navigatable tributaries) in place, and it could be a way to move ethanol to refineries in Louisiana, and Texas near waterways.


There are also the Intercoastal Waterways, The Great Lakes + St. Lawrence Seaway, and seaports that can handle the barges/ships to transport the ethanol to the East Coast. The West will require dedicated pipelines, unless you want to go through Panama, or more far off, use intermodal means through Mexico.
_This is one of the positives of Butanol; it does not have the same corrosion issues as C2H6O.

Robert Schwartz

Why don't the Senators introduce a bill to power cars by burning dollar bills. It would undoubtedly be cheaper than this nonsense.


"Why don't the Senators introduce a bill to power cars by burning dollar bills. It would undoubtedly be cheaper than this nonsense."

I know. It's worse than sending money to the UN to fight the global warming hoax.


....or, just invest in butanol, so that we can use existing pipelines....oh, and the cars too!


To accomplish their purpose, it would be more efficient to just transfer dollar bills to their constituents, but that might look like buying votes....


A lot of anger in here

John Schreiber

gotta have a pipe if you want to have a pipe dream.

I am just not sure if the midwest will be producing the celluosic product at stage 2 at levels to justify a pipeline. I would expect a large quantity of local plants. The biomass must be close to the production facility. And I feel that blending should occur locally also, for local consumption.



When is the last time you saw anyone try to crack a joke on this site? I tried my first time posting, but quickly learned a sense of humor must be bad for the environment.



Rafael Seidl

The ethanol crowd needs a plan for switching to butanol production, which is far less hygroscopic and can be pumped through pipelines. It also approximates the energy content of mineral gasoline.


I was reading somewhere that most ethanol plants will be able to produce butanol too.
Lower octane though, would a butanol/ethanol blend work?

fyi CO2

I'm sure Williams Bio-Energy will spend a more shareholder profit than BP to insure there is no pipeline corrosivity problem. And the condition of most rivers and intercoastal waterways would not experience a very negative impact if a few barrels of ethanol went astray- might get rid of the asian carp, too.

Rafael Seidl

James -

ethanol is useful as an octane improver. N-butanol is useful as a replacement for the base product, though it would require a more powerful fuel pump/injection system to compensate for its diesel-like viscosity. The two alcohols can be mixed in any proportion, but any water in the liquid would preferentially dissolve in the ethanol fraction.

There are also three butanol isomers, see here

These feature high octane numbers but so far, n-butanol is the only type that can be produced biologically. It smells like bananas, apparently, but don't get high on the fumes:

Note that fuel alcohol production can generally be broken down into five steps, each of which is more or less independent of the preceding one. Technologically, you can use e.g. corn to produce either ethanol or butanol.

(a) mechanical/thermal/chemical extraction of sugars, starch or cellulose from the biomass feedstock

(b) enzymatic splitting of starch into glucose *or* cellulose into glucose and xylose (difficult); some processes yield other intermediary compounds

(c) digestion of intermediary compounds into alcohols and by-products in bioreactors. End compounds depend largely on bacteria/fungi used. By-product toxicity may limit possible yields.

(d) chemical separation of the fuel alcohol compounds

(e) post-processing of by-products into fuel compounds, e.g. using hydrogen produced using (expensive) electricity from renewable sources. This step is generally omitted as it is not economically viable.


From what I've been reading, transportation bottlenecks were at least as big a problem as supply shortfall was during the ethanol run-up we saw over the summer. The ethanol in question was being used as an additive to improve local air quality, and without MTBE, it's the only viable option for that application.

So doubts aside as to the efficiency of using first or second generation ethanol as a bulk fuel, we will still need to produce and ship something like 4+ billion gallons of it per year, typically to non-midwestern markets where much fuel is consumed and air quality is an issue (think California and the Northeast). If butanol can serve in place of ethanol as an additive, than could change things, but so far I have not heard that it can be.

If we want to avoid a repeat of this past summer ($5/gal ethanol on the major markets) then we need to think about not just expanding production, but also expanding shipping. I don't know the best way to solve this problem -- whether more barges and railcars is best, or whether a few dedicated pipelines would do the trick. I do think that it makes sense to study the issue, and that's exactly what this bill is about. Though I also think that the authors of the study should slip in some research concerning a "baseline" scenario, where ethanol production does not expand past its need as an additive (or if it expands to bulk fuel status, it does so only in the midwest near where it is made), and how best to distribute that lower volume of product to the major markets. A larger volume might justify a pipeline while a smaller volume would only justify more barges, and we really ought to try to figure our where the break-even point is.

Rafael Seidl

NBK-Boston -

the alternative would be to produce the actual ethanol close to where it is needed. It might be easier to transport a suitably denatured precursor liquid containing a high concentration of sugars.

Failing that, it might make sense to execute only the purification operation at the receiving end of a long ethanol pipeline. There is plenty of low-grade waste heat at refineries and the azeotropic point of ethanol-water is just 78.2 deg C. At that point, the liquid phase contains just 4% water.


It seems to me (correct me if I am wrong) that posters on this issue do not know how refinery product pipelines are working. It is ONE pipeline which periodically pumps gasoline, then kerosene, then diesel, then heating fuel, and again diesel, kerosene, gasoline though the same pipe. The research is aiming to find out if ethanol could be included into this sequence. No intentions to build dedicated ethanol pipelines is anticipated.


Andrey -

According to the initial paragraph of the article, a dedicated pipeline is exactly what they are planning to study: "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." Let me draw your attention to the language "one or more dedicated ethanol pipelines."

Conventional petroleum product pipelines are used to transport all sorts of different liquids sequentially, but the oft-cited hydroscopic and corrosive problems that come with ethanol are what make it difficult to integrate that fuel with standard sequential transmission. The article notes that the Williams company does ship ethanol through conventional pipelines, with the help of certain safeguards, but it is not clear whether that technique is also up for study in the Harkins bill. Perhaps it should be.

Rafael -

Shipping some sort of ethanol precurser instead of finished ethanol is clever, but you still have to contend with shipping bottlenecks one way or the other. You either have to increase rail and barge capacity for the precurser compounds, or prove that a precurser liquid could be shipped in a petroleum pipeline more safely than finished ethanol would. I'm not sure how that would turn out to be true, though.

Still, pointing our the opportunities for energy "arbitrage" is very neat. Rather than burning more coal or gas to finish the purification process, you couple the ethanol process with another process that already provides you with the correct quality and quantity of waste heat. An additional variant on that scheme: Build a full-scale power plant near the ethanol plant, use the waste heat for purification and simply "ship" the electricity to market over the high tension grid. This is in place of shipping unfinished ethanol to an existing remote power plant to use the residual heat there. The one advantage to my approach would be if the industry finally came up with an ethanol pipeline network (or protocol for shipping ethanol through conventional pipelines), and then decided that precursor liquids could *not* be safely shipped in the same way. My way, you only have one commodity to ship at any stage in the game.


This points out why you want to produce the ethanol as close to where it is consumed as possible. California could produce all its ethanol for E10 within the state by gasifying biomass. It has not been done because captial goes elsewhere. Prop 87 would put royalties on oil pumped in the state to help pay for clean renewables.

david larson

It should be no secret that Harkin and Lugar are looking for large scale production among their own consituencies, with the product to be shipped to the rest of us. Before you bash them, remember, this is how politics has always worked: Campaign's aren't funded by happy thoughts and flowers, somebody shells out large shekels.
Problem is, if we go this route, we risk producing another industrial combine like oil. Everyone, at every level, needs to work in their own community to encourage production of biofuels with materials they have on hand. Cellulosic ethanol can be made, TODAY, with technology in hand, from grass clippings, sawdust, tree trimmings, fall leaves, fruit peelings, rotten vegetables, cloth scraps, paper, municipal solid waste of all sorts. Any of these in your area?
If we have 5,000 independent ethanol producers, competition will be greater, and it will take more time for them to become the next Standard Oil or AT&T and stifle the growth of any new technology.
THEN, move forward to the POX reformer fuel cells, (it's a baby step from using eth in an IC engine and using same in fuel cell) Once we make the step from biomass to ethanol to hydrogen, then we can make the step to hydrogen from any source easily. Perhaps seawater hydrogen will become feasible just in time to cut the legs out from under the AOL/TIMEWARNER/EXXONMOBIL/ARCHERDANIELSMIDLAND/CHINA,INC/AT&T/DUQUESNE/DUPONT/TRUMPDISTILLERIESPRODUCTS conglomerate. If there is a next step after that, remember, hydrogen is also fuel for fusion reaction


Williams Bio-Energy no longer exists as a company so far as I know. It was acquired by Morgan Stanley Capital Partners, in 2003 I think, and IPO'd as Aventine Renewable Energy this year. There has been no mention of pipelines by the company on its conference calls or filings that I am aware of. I would be very interested in the source of this information and a link.

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