Producers share revolutionary efforts at corn ethanol plants

By Katie Fletcher | August 06, 2014

Many ethanol advocates attending and speaking at the 2014 American Coalition for Ethanol conference are not strangers to the ethanol industry. Even though they have been with the industry for a while, many reject doing things in the same old way. Collectively, they want to help the industry move toward the leading edge through innovative actions. Producers at the conference spoke on how they are differentiating themselves from the pack, and refuse to be satisfied with the same old, same old.

Producers from Adkins Energy LLC, Dakota Ethanol, Prairie Horizon Agri-Energy LLC and Quad County Corn Processors made up the panel of speakers. Innovation covered the gamut,  including corn ethanol plants featuring corn oil biodiesel, renewable diesel, and cellulosic ethanol production.

Ron Alverson at Dakota Ethanol discussed opportunities for corn ethanol and corn oil biodiesel for low carbon fuel markets. Some of the components he discussed that factor into dealing with the low carbon fuel market are the California Air Resource Board’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard market and the GHG, regulated emissions and energy use in transportation (GREET) model that calculates greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from all energy used in a fuel’s production life cycle. “There are scheduled GHG reductions by 10 percent by 2020, which established the carbon trading market,” Alverson said. “Growing low carbon fuel markets present opportunities economically and politically,” Alverson said.

Economically, he discussed how low carbon fuel production incentives support energy efficiency and innovation. Politically, Alverson mentioned how old data, indirect land use change (ILUC) in current corn ethanol and GHG calculations negatively impacted support after 2007, but now have the opportunity to positively turn it around.

Ray Baker, general manager with Adkins Energy, discussed the integration of biodiesel production with corn ethanol plants. “We decided on a 2 million gallon plus plant with expansion, and selected WB Services as our contractor,” Baker said. “The biodiesel process is a similar look and feel of ethanol plant, with instrumentation and automation.”

Baker shared with the audience that they are BQ-9000 registered, an ASTM program standard for biodiesel and a quality systems program that includes storage, sampling, testing, blending, shipping, distribution and fuel management practices. “Biodiesel integration into ethanol is exciting to introduce into the industry as an example of how we are continuing to grow,” Baker said.

Renewable diesel production is being integrated at a Prairie Horizon Agri-Energy biorefinery. Mike Erhart, CEO of PHAE, said that the company kept good records of trials to implement changes. “What worked for PHAE is we switched to an enzyme that allowed us to stop using NH3, we use Scientek Technology to enhance enzyme activity and installed a WB Services pre-condenser to remove alcohols out of the CO2 from 1,200 gallons a day, before the scrubber,” Erhart said. He also mentioned how the plant “doesn’t look, smell or operate like an ethanol plant,” Erhart said.

The first plant has now been built in Sedgwick, Kansas, producing more than 3 million gallons of renewable diesel per year. “It is a refinery, hydrocracking process, the only way you can tell the difference between renewable diesel and diesel fuel is the carbon data,” Erhart said. We use this plant to one, prove technology and two, give us another avenue for our distillers corn oil, advanced fuel.”

For every 100 gallons of corn oil processed, 90 gallons of renewable diesel fuel can be produced. “Exothermic reaction generates heat, there is no waste, the excess steam produced goes back to the existing plant,” Erhart said. “The financial return price of renewable diesel will price with heating oil plus value of D4 RIN.”

Erhart said the facility’s performance shows a payout in 3 to 5 years, depending on the market conditions. He also said the plant creates nine new jobs for the area starting day one. “I like that, I like creating an opportunity for people,” Erhart said.

In regard to innovation, Erhart says there are a lot of neat ideas, but there is always a better mousetrap. “Prairie Horizon decided to go in the biorefinery direction, we are currently working on ways to reduce distillers grain production and use that material for other higher margin opportunities,” Erhart said.

Yet one more example of innovation was illustrated through Quad County Corn Processors addition of cellulosic ethanol and use of Enogen enzymes. Ironically, at the ACE conference the adding cellulosic ethanol (ACE) process shares the same acronym.

Galva, Iowa, had its first commercial cellulosic gallons as a result of the ACE process on July 1. It was the first plant to incorporate Enogen with a commercial agreement on Jan. 8, 2013, as well as a patent granted on the ACE process Jan. 21, 2014.

Delayne Johnson, CEO of QCCP, said they signed a collaboration agreement with Syngenta to market ACE plus Enogen in March. “We have three fermenters and a pretreatment area that will be added,” Johnson said. “There is really nothing new and different to operators in this process, which is what we really like about it.”

Johnson discussed how there is not a significant alterations to the existing plant and that yield improvements will result from ACE. “ACE creates an additional 6 percent cellulosic ethanol from corn kernel cellulose, creates additional 1.1 number of distillers oil per bushel of corn processed high protein feed,” Johnson said. “Phase II ACE will create additional 5 percent cellulosic ethanol from corn kernel hemi-cellulose.”

He also discussed how cellulosic D3 renewable identification numbers (RINs) would become available on the commercial market, and the EPA wants to work with them on the issue.

“The industry has technology available to create less than 2 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol with no more corn—that’s pretty significant—we clearly are not able to do everything that needs to be done with this technology, but we do make a very good jumpstart to that if others implement this technology,” Johnson said.

The next steps for the plant involve taking a closer look at the utilization of Enogen corn viscosity reduction and additional fermentation from ACE. “It increases throughput by 10 to 15 percent through higher solids loading,” Johnson said. “QCCP will begin full scale testing the concept this fall.”