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Race on to develop pipes to transport ethanol

September 17, 2008
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Outside of the debate over how big a role ethanol will have as a viable U.S. energy source has been the lingering problem of transporting the biofuel, which can eat away pipes used for traditional fuels. According to the Associated Press, ethanol has not been shipped on a commercial scale in existing pipelines because its high oxygen content makes it too corrosive. It also absorbs water and impurities in pipelines. Pipe companies that believe ethanol will be around for the foreseeable future have begun working to solve that problem. Houston-based Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP this month plans to run a test batch of ethanol through its 105-mile long underground gasoline pipeline from Tampa to Orlando. Currently, industry experts estimate a pipeline dedicated solely to ethanol would cost about $1 million per mile. The Association of Oil Pipe Lines, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents about 50 pipeline companies, has been studying whether ethanol can be transported safely in existing pipelines. The federal Office of Pipeline Safety is studying technology in Brazil, where pipelines have been used successfully to transport sugar-based ethanol for decades. While tests are being done to evaluate the impact of ethanol on pipelines, Houston-based oil and natural gas pipeline operator TEPPCO Partners LP conducted a study last year to see how existing pipelines affect the fuel. The company found that colorless ethanol turned dark amber as it picked up three decades worth of impurities along the 150-mile line. The fuel had to be filtered before use. The U.S. has 160 ethanol refineries and 51 more are being built. Domestic ethanol production this year is pegged at 9.3 billion gallons, up from 6.5 billion gallons in 2007.

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