How Is Ethanol Made?

Extended Drought Pushes Corn Prices To Record Highs
E-85 contains 15% ethanol added to gasoline. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ethanol can be made from any crop or plant that contains a large amount of sugar or components that can be converted into sugar, such as starch or cellulose.

Starch vs Cellulose

Sugar beets and sugar cane can have their sugars extracted and processed. Crops such as corn, wheat and barley contain starch that can be easily converted to sugar, then made into ethanol. Most of the US production of ethanol is from starch, and almost all of the starch-based ethanol is made from corn grown in Midwest states. 

Trees and grasses have much of their sugars locked up in a fibrous material called cellulose, which can be broken down into sugars and made into ethanol. By-products of forestry operations can be used for cellulosic ethanol: sawdust, wood chips, branches. Crop residues can also be used, such as corn cobs, corn leaves, or rice stems. Some crops can be grown specifically to make cellulosic ethanol, most notably switchgrass. Sources of cellulosic ethanol are not edible, which means that the production of ethanol does not come into direct competition with the use of crops for food or livestock feed.

The Milling Process

Most ethanol is produced using a four-step process:

  1. The ethanol feedstock (crops or plants) are ground up for easier processing;
  2. Sugar is dissolved from the ground material, or the starch or cellulose is converted into sugar. This is done through a cooking process.
  3. Microbes such as yeast or bacteria feed on the sugar, producing ethanol in a process called fermentation, essentially the same way beer and wine are made. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of this fermentation;
  4. The ethanol is distilled to achieve a high concentration. Gasoline or another additive is added so it cannot be consumed by humans - a process called denaturation. This way, the ethanol also avoids a tax on beverage alcohol.

The spent corn is a waste product called distiller's grain. Fortunately it is valuable as feed for livestock such as cattle, hogs, and poultry.

It is also possible to produce ethanol through a wet-milling process, which is used by many large producers. This process involves a steeping period after which the grain germ, oil, starch, and gluten are all separated and further processed into many useful byproducts. High-fructose corn syrup is one of them and is used as a sweetener in many prepared foods. Corn oil is refined and sold. Gluten is also extracted during the wet milling process and is sold as a feed additive for cattle, hogs, and poultry.

A Growing Production

The United States leads globally in ethanol production, followed by Brazil. Domestic production in the US leaped from 3.4 billion gallons in 2004 to 14.8 billion in 2015. That year, 844 million gallons were exported out of the U.S., mostly to Canada, Brazil, and the Philippines.

It is no surprise that ethanol plants are located where corn is grown. Much of the United's State's fuel ethanol is produced in the Midwest, with numerous plants in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. From there it is shipped by truck or by train to markets on the West and East coasts. Plans are underway for a dedicated pipeline to ship ethanol from Iowa to New Jersey. 


Department of Energy. Alternative Fuels Data Center.

Edited by Frederic Beaudry.

View Article Sources
  1. Ethanol Production and Distribution.” U.S. Department of Energy.

  2. Luque, Luis, et al. “Comparison of Ethanol Production from Corn Cobs and Switchgrass Following a Pyrolysis-Based Biorefinery Approach.” Biotechnol Biofuels, vol. 9, 2016, doi:10.1186/s13068-016-0661-4

  3. Onuki, Shinnosuki, et al. “Taking Ethanol Quality Beyond Fuel Grade: A Review: Taking Ethanol Quality Beyond Fuel Grade: A Review.” J Inst Brew, vol. 122, 2016, pp., 588-598., doi:10.1002/jib.364

  4. Norton, Paul, et al. “Running Line-Haul Trucks on Ethanol.” U.S. Department of Energy.

  5. 7.3b How Corn Is Processed To Make Ethanol.” Penn State University.

  6. Low-Level Ethanol Fuel Blends.” U.S. Department of Energy.

  7. U.S. Ethanol Exports Exceed 800 Million Gallons for Second Year in a Row.” U.S. Energy Information Administration.

  8. 2015 Bioenergy Market Report.”  U.S. Department of Energy.

  9. Ethanol Facilities' Capacity by State.” Nebraska Department of Environment & Energy Air, Land & Energy.