“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take a product that’s currently produced by the petrochemicals industry and find a competitive peer for it—one that’s renewable, competitive and green?”
The answer to that question, posed by National Corn Growers Association Vice President for Research and Business Development Richard Glass, should be a resounding “heck, yeah!”
This little molecule, Ethyl lactate, is a general all-purpose solvent as well as a common ingredient in pharmaceutical preparations, food additives and fragrances. It is typically derived from petrochemicals. However, using a reactive distillation process allows a cost-effective way to produce it from ethanol – hence providing a significant non-fuel revenue stream for ethanol plants. “If all you produce from a biorefinery is ethanol, that is fine for a nascent industry but, in essence, all you have is a one-trick pony,” Glass said. “My dream is the integrated biorefinery where the only limits are your imagination and the ability to make the system utilize all components of the production output.”
An article in Biomass magazine outlines some of the work being done by the NCGA and a team from Michigan State University. According to the article, ethyl lactate is not widely used today because of its high cost, but has applications in the electronics industry for micro-circuit fabrication, mainly because it’s a clean solvent. In 2007, the cost of producing ethyl lactate was between $1.30 and $1.60 a pound. MSU and NCGA researchers were able to cut that cost by half using a process called reactive distillation.