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Strong future ahead for the U.S. ethanol industry

Strong future ahead for the U.S. ethanol industry

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Green Plains Renewable Energy

Trucks line up to deliver corn to Green Plains Renewable Energy's ethanol production facility in Madison, Ill., which produces over 90 million gallons of ethanol annually. Facility officials say the plant receives about 150 truckloads of corn per day. Photo by Bryce Gray

Everything happens for a reason. While it may be an overused saying, it happens to be true in my case. On April 10, 2015, I was laid off from my job at U.S. Steel in Granite City, after the coke ovens at the facility closed. As a 41-year-old husband and father of two boys, I was forced to start over, beginning with a return to the classroom.

While going back to school was daunting, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After researching several industries, I opted to pursue a degree in process operations technology at my local community college. I was especially interested in the growth potential of the renewable fuels industry. As I have learned, biofuels producers have made tremendous strides in the production of ethanol from corn, growing by leaps and bounds. Thanks in part to the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal program that helps provide greater choice at the pump, U.S. ethanol production has grown 143 percent from 6.5 billion gallons in 2007 to 15.8 billion gallons in 2017. There are now 15 ethanol facilities in Illinois, collectively producing 1.68 billion gallons of renewable fuels per year.

While it appears the steel industry has likely reached its ceiling of growth, the U.S. ethanol industry is only scratching the surface of future biofuels, biochemicals and biomaterials from renewable feedstocks, and I wanted to be a part of that expansion.

In conjunction with my studies, I also began an internship at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. NCERC is the only facility in the world that conducts simultaneous research on corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, advanced biofuels and specialty chemicals. Right in my own backyard, NCERC offered me the opportunity to learn as much as possible about the renewable fuels industry.

During my internship, I received an extensive education in the process for turning field corn into ethanol. The knowledgeable staff at NCERC were amazing to work with and learn from, and I thoroughly enjoyed my internship. The hands-on experience was ideal, as I prefer to learn from doing rather than just reading about it. The internship also proved to be the perfect growing opportunity for future ethanol industry employees like me.

After my internship, in February 2017, I accepted a full-time position at NCERC as an ethanol plant operations technician, while also pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Management and Applied Engineering at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. As part of my job, I help prepare the pilot plant or fermentation suite for trials and research. The seemingly endless opportunities for research and test trials is exciting and reassuring of a strong future for the U.S. ethanol industry. The best part of the job, however, is that I get to pay it forward and work with our interns. Knowing that I get to be a part of helping people who were just like me not that long ago is very rewarding. Who would think a regular guy who was laid off would have a story anyone wanted to hear?

I am so thankful to the NCERC for the opportunities I have been given. I see endless growth opportunities for the U.S. ethanol industry, and providing people just like me with rewarding, long-term careers. Last year, the U.S. ethanol industry supported 357,493 American jobs, generated $44 billion in gross domestic product and boosted household income by $24 billion.

I am proud to work for a clean, renewable and domestically produced industry and am so thankful for this blessing in disguise.

Christopher Wense is an operations technician for the National Corn to Ethanol Research Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

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