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'Fuel of the future' set to flow New ethanol plant -- the first of its kind in the Northeast -- joins growing industry

Henry Ford called ethanol "the fuel of the future," and envisioned it powering his revolutionary Model T automobile.

America's booming oil industry didn't agree, effectively steering automobile manufacturers to what remains their fuel of choice, gasoline.

But John M. Sawyer Jr. is echoing Ford's sentiment as the former Livingston County farmer sets to open the first ethanol plant in the Northeast.

"I really feel alternative fuels are the [fuels] of the future," he said. "Ethanol won't be the total answer, but I truly believe we can no longer rely on foreign oil."

Western New York Energy's $90 million plant, located on a former cabbage patch just outside the Orleans County village of Medina, will begin round-the-clock operation this week.

When it is in full production, Sawyer said, motorists will get a domestically-produced, renewable fuel, area growers will have a stable market for as much corn as they can produce and dairy farmers will get a high-protein feed that is a byproduct of production.

"Of the actual bushel of corn, we use 100 percent of it," said Sawyer, adding that another production byproduct, carbon dioxide, will be sold to a business partner that will be building its own processing facility on site.

That building will join a massive agricultural complex that features miles of pipes and conduits, a water treatment facility, four 730,000-gallon fermentation tanks and two 150-feet-tall, 75-feet wide silos that hold the key component of production, corn.

Ethanol -- also known as grain alcohol -- starts as kernels of corn, which are ground, mixed with water, yeast and enzymes, heated, then allowed to ferment. After two days of distillation, the alcohol is separated from the solids, which are sold as a high-protein feed for cattle.

The ethanol is then shipped off site for blending with gasoline. The combining of the two fuels cuts the cost per gallon, increases the octane and decreases harmful emissions. Usually the blend is 10 percent ethanol, but a 15 percent blend also is gaining popularity.

Production of ethanol in the United States is growing. There are 135 plants now, and another 75, including one in Fulton, are under construction.

Those plants will produce more than 7 billion gallons of ethanol in 2007, double the country's output from only three years ago.

Nearly half of the gasoline sold in the U.S. has some ethanol in it, according to the American Coalition for Ethanol, which touts the fuel's benefits.

Sawyer said 250 million gallons of ethanol are used in New York each year. All of it comes from the Midwest. But Western New York Energy will cut into that by producing 50 million gallons a year.

The plant will use 20 million bushels of corn a year, a potential market that impresses local grower Robin Root of Root Brothers in Albion, who already put an additional 20 percent of his land into corn. He estimated 80 to 90 percent of local growers also planted more corn.

"The intriguing thing about this ethanol plant [is], if everybody grew corn in Western New York, they couldn't satisfy the demand," Root said.

Local corn growers will benefit because they will have a ready-made, reliable market for their crop, he said.

Many corn growers sell their excess to feed mills elsewhere in New York, Root said, but the market is spotty and the cost to deliver it continues to grow.

"The positive [of the plant] is stability for farmers because you can price your grain months in advance," he said. "You know it's going to be delivered."

Sawyer said the plant is very much locally oriented. As much of the corn as possible will be purchased locally. Most of the plant's components came from local suppliers. Its employees -- about 40 now and possibly another 20 or so down the line -- are from nearby.

Critics of ethanol production say more energy is used creating it than is produced by it.

Sawyer's son Michael, also involved in the plant management, said that opinion is "very much in the minority" and that independent research shows that "for every unit of energy put into the process, we net 1.6 to 1.7 units of energy."

The plant will be powered by natural gas either from the United States or Canada, Michael Sawyer said.

Plus, he said, "This is a domestically produced transportation fuel that displaces foreign oil."

email: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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