Safe Plants, Sound Plans

FROM THE DECEMBER ISSUE: Editor in Chief Tom Bryan previews the magazine, including features about safety, corn oil and emissions.
By Tom Bryan | November 21, 2017

Today’s ethanol plants virtually run themselves. With the push of a button and the click of a mouse, these high-tech biorefineries run 24-7 under the watchful eyes of plant operators stationed within the factory’s safe interior helm. They monitor the process, as grain enters one side of the plant and ethanol, distillers grains and corn oil exit the other, in almost Jetson-like fashion.

That might be the picture some of us would like to have of modern ethanol production, but it’s not quite accurate. While ethanol plants are highly automated, technology still hasn’t replaced the need for humans on the ground. In real life, ethanol plants are busy, industrial workplaces where employees continuously carry out manual tasks. They turn wrenches, move product, stack chemicals, troubleshoot problems, and clean, fix and replace equipment. These workplace activities carry risk, and that means ethanol plant employees can and sometimes do get hurt. Today, thanks to insurance providers that closely track workplace incidents, we know precisely what types of injuries the ethanol workforce is prone to. In this month’s cover story, “Injury Inventory,” on page 16, we learn that the most common ethanol plant injuries are strains caused by, among other things, impacts with heavy objects, improper lifting and slips and falls. Lacerations, contusions and burns also occur with some regularity, while breaks and sprains happen less often. Altogether, the ethanol industry reports about 150 injuries a year—from muscle strains to broken thumbs—but many plants go years without a single reportable incident, which is no accident at all. 

We refocus on production and markets in “Extract or Enrich,” on page 24.  This story examines the balance ethanol producers seek in maximizing corn oil extraction while meeting the needs of their global DDGS customers. Fortunately, the feed industry is making the variable oil content of today’s DDGS work. But as nutritionists dial in their systems and formulations for contemporary DDGS, new technologies—principally, ethanol from corn fiber—could bring on even heavier de-oiling. That sounds like an issue, but experts say tomorrow’s low-oil DDGS could have improved digestibility and, with it, ample energy. 

After that, “Pollutant Powerplay,” on page 30, revisits an alternative energy system we introduced to readers two years ago. Ener-Core’s Power Oxidizer was still at demonstration-scale when we first reported on the company in 2015. Today, the West Coast company is installing a 3.5-megawatt version of its combined-heat-and-power plant at Pacific Ethanol’s Stockton, California, ethanol plant. When complete, the system will effectively eliminate NOx and destroy volatile organic compounds while simultaneously extracting energy from them.

Author: Tom Bryan
President & Editor in Chief