Posted by: carlbrannen | May 1, 2008

Water, Assault, and Sudoku at Moses Lake

Our ethanol plant is in Moses Lake, Washington. I haven’t moved there yet so I when I need to do things over here I stay in a hotel. Right now, the boss is picking the hotel so I’m staying at the ritzy Shilo Inn; let me see if I can get a picture in at the end of the post.

Yesterday’s front page news from ML, as reported by the Columbia Basin Herald:
Front page, Columbia Basin Herald, April 30, 2008


The “Columbia basin” is the part of Eastern Washington that drains into the Columbia River. The Columbia river provides the irrigation water used in the farming region here, which was reclaimed from the desert and is called the “Columbia Basin Reclamation Project”. The project consists of dams that make electricity and provide irrigation water here.

Moses Lake is in Grant County, which is said to have the US (and probably the world) record for corn yield per acre per year, recently 182 bushels. Converted into ethanol, this amounts to 540 gallons per acre per year. The high yield is due to the intense sunlight, moderate temperatures, and excellent irrigation water. But only about half the available irrigation water in the reclamation project here is used, the rest is wasted, even though the land is available to farm with it and evidently people are available to eat the crops.

The reclamation project uses just over 2% of the water going through the Grand Coulee Dam, which is where the water is pumped from. The primary use of the Grand Coulee dam is electricity production; it produces 6.5 gigawatts. This power saw its first major use in the smelting of aluminum ores for the aircraft used to win the Second World War. Most of the rest water flows down to the Pacific Ocean. It would be fairly easy to increase the irrigation to take 4 or 5% of the flow and this would double the irrigated land here from 100 square miles to 200 square miles. In fact, these water rights are permanently reserved for the project but environmental pressure, mostly for salmon, have kept them from being used.

The “PUD” is the Public Utility District. Around here, electricity is provided by a dam on the Columbia river (which also provides the irrigation for the local region) and is very inexpensive. There’s been a certain amount of press to the effect that ethanol requires too much water to manufacture and therefore is ecologically unsound.

Here are the figures: An ethanol plant requires about 3 gallons of water for each gallon of ethanol. In addition, about 15% of the corn crop is irrigated, but since ethanol plants can use dryland crops like sorghum or barley, let’s look just at the water consumption of the ethanol plant itself.

The US uses around 150 billion gallons of gasoline per year. If this were entirely replaced with ethanol, the amount of water required to refine it would be 450 billion gallons per year. The average flow of the Columbia river is 265,000 cubic feet per second. There are 7.48 gallons in a cubic foot and 31,556,926 seconds in a year (about). So the Columbia river sends 62,468,512,863,300 gallons into the ocean each year. Therefore, the water requirement to run enough ethanol plants sufficient to fuel the entire fleet of US gas guzzlers totals to less than 1% of the flow of the average flow of the Columbia river alone.


The second headline is the result of a Moses Lake woman shooting at, and missing, her husband. She was arrested and charged with 1st degree assault. A neighbor called the cops; no sense in taking rounds. The article is kind of interesting in that an hour before the shooting, the husband had been involved in another incident; he reportedly threatened a 29-year-old woman and spat in her face. The police are unsure if the incidents are related. I’m betting they are.

Math at Moses Lake

The school system at ML is considering a new textbook. In the US, texts are chosen by states, and states can defer the choice to local school districts. In this case, the textbook at hand is called “Growing With Mathematics”, an apt choice for a rural town, and the selection of 115 out of 126 teachers querried.

One could not mention “math” and “Moses Lake” and “Columbia Basin Herald” without also mentioning the paper’s Sudoku puzzles. Perhaps because I’ve been trained on the trivial sudokus published in the Seattle papers, I find the CBH sudoku shockingly difficult. I wonder what sort of mathematics geniuses this little town is breeding?

Now I haven’t tried the following puzzle; I can’t vouch that it meets the standard that I’ve come to expect from the Columbia Basin Herald. But here it is. Enjoy:
Columbia Basin Herald\'s viciously difficult Sudoku puzzle

P.S. If the above Sudoku puzzle turns out to be too difficult for you, you might want to try and figure out how to use my Java applet Sudoku puzzle solver. Now this program is intended to help design Sudoku puzzles and may require you to assist a little in guessing at times, but it will automatically fill in all the really obvious numbers. The rather short source code is here.

Oh, and the Shilo Inn I’m staying at? Here’s a picture:



  1. The figures on water in ethanol production shocked me. On what other grounds can “they” claim mass ethanol production to be ecologically unsound.

    As a side note: This part of your article reminded me of a short story by Isaac Asimov titled /The Martian Way/. You should look it up if you haven’t read it already–and if you have a taste for Sci-Fi. He wrote it quite a while back, so the science is dated. Still, a good story.

  2. I see I didn’t reference the figure for water requirements of an ethanol plant. Here’s some reputable figures from an agricultural college group worried about ethanol water consumption, see figure 1.

    Their water usage (5 gallons per gallon ethanol) is higher than ours (3) because midwest US water is generally not as pure as Columbia river water. The largest use of water in an ethanol plant is used for cooling. It is evaporated. This is what creates the clouds coming out of a plant.

    The water that does not evaporate becomes saltier. If it gets too salty, then it clogs your pipes. This limits how many times you can run it through an evaporation cycle, and so places that have nasty water use more of it.

    In addition, some plants recycle their waste water, others do not. Recycling is accomplished by making it into a syrupy concentrate plus distilled water using an “evaporator”. Not doing this will increase a plant’s water consumption maybe 25%. Of course this works better if your plant’s water is more pure. In general, the more modern a plant, the less water it uses.

    Most of the people fighting against ethanol either know nothing about it. The backbone of the fight is by people who want to eliminate all “factory farming”. For them, the concept of the world being covered by farms growing fuels is a nightmare of wall to wall industrialization.

    Their preferred solution is to reduce consumption. Drive a bicycle. Live with a smaller footprint. They can’t imagine that any solution could possibly involve a huge machine built from glistening stainless steel and will fight against it. And getting back to water usage, here’s some photos of our beautiful stainless steel evaporator (water distillation / purifier) being assembled.

  3. Yet more assaults and worse in Grant County: man sentenced for raping his mother, and traffic dispute leads 42-year-old woman to beat up 21-year-old man and his 18-year-old female friend.

  4. I was reading Scientific American the other day (forgive me!), and I came across an environmental issues article that seemed to promote more openness in dealing with environmental issues. The writers recognize how horribly impractical the common, light-foot, approach is, and pointed out how little we are accomplishing. I was surprised to see the article published in a popular magazine.

    A glimmer of hope, perhaps?

  5. I read your blog. Its simply super. You have very good content. See my blog alsoEvaporator Manufacturers

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