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Posted on  

June 7, 2002

Ethanol Plant Turns Corn Into Cash


In the bygone days of Prohibition, 42,000 gallons of alcohol pouring out of a plant in Stanley each day may have aroused suspicion.

But the alcohol produced from corn at the Ace Ethanol plant is perfectly legal, a perfectly effective fuel and perfectly unfit for human consumption.

Still, as electricians and computer technicians put finishing touches on the plant in preparation for its July 1 opening, General Manager Terry Kulesa somehow found the words to compare the plant's crew to those rebels of the 1920s.

"We're glorified moonshiners if you really think about it," Kulesa said jokingly.

Each bushel of corn that Ace Ethanol takes in will produce 2.7 gallons of 200-proof alcohol to be stored in a "tank farm" next to the plant itself, which is at 815 W. Maple St. in Stanley.

But no one should develop the notion they can tap the tanks and tilt their open mouths to a gushing stream of moonshine. To make the alcohol unsuitable for drinking, the plant mixes in a chemical called a "denaturant", or unleaded gasoline, which is required by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

This is the final step in a four-day process for each "batch" of corn that leaves the plant as 42,000 gallons of useable, alcohol-based fuel called ethanol.

Over those four days, the corn in one batch, over 15,500 bushels, is ground into a fine flour and mixed with water and an enzyme to break the starch down to sugar. It is then cooked, sterilized and mixed with another enzyme and yeast, which converts the sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol. A distillation process separates the water from the alcohol which is then mixed with the denaturant to make ethanol.

The ethanol plant is in its final stages of construction and will host an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, June 9. The event will give the public a chance to view the facility and meet its employees.

The Stanley plant is the first dry mill ethanol producer in Wisconsin and similar operations will become more common, Kulesa said.

"We'll probably see the ethanol industry double within the next ten years," he said.

Using alcohol as fuel seems like a new idea. But the Ford Model T was actually designed to run on alcohol, Kulesa said.

Ethanol is an octane enhancer, which means ethanol producers can use cheaper components than regular gasoline producers to get the required amount of octane in the fuel, Kulesa said. This, in turn, lowers the cost of f fuel.

Ethanol is also an oxygenate, which makes the fuel burn cleaner and reduced pollution. It is also a domestically produced, renewable fuel, which is probably its biggest benefit, Kulesa said.

Kulesa estimates the plant will purchase 6 million bushels of corn per year.

"And we're going to buy most of it locally," he said.

"It will certainly give local grain producers an alternative market," said Bob Denman, assistant to the president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, with headquarters in Chippewa Falls.

The use of ethanol can also decrease the nation's dependence on oil-producing countries, Kulesa said.

There are many ethanol plants already operating in Minnesota and WFU backed legislation helping the establishment of plants in the state, Denman said.

"We owe it to our state to have a similar (plant)," he said. "We're delighted to see it go through."

There are about 60 ethanol plants operating in the nation, Kulesa said.

Denman said he is also glad to see a useful bi-product come out of the plant in the form of corn mash, which can be sold back to farmers as cattle feed.

Not all the ethanol will be used locally. Much of it will be shipped to areas where a certain percentage of ethanol is required in gasoline, such as California and Canada. Even nearby Milwaukee requires a gasoline-ethanol blend to help combat its smog problem, Kulesa said.

In fact, ethanol is more widespread than most people realize, even in places it is not required, such as the Chippewa Valley.

"A lot of our fuel in this area has ethanol, people just don't know it," Kulesa said, adding that fuel is seldom labeled as containing ethanol. "But, obviously, we'll never replace gasoline because we could never grow enough corn."


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