Character, Friend, Genius

FROM THE NOVEMBER ISSUE: Dennis Vander Griend, who passed away in July, is remembered as an extraordinary engineer, a unique character and a great friend.
By Susanne Retka Schill | October 15, 2018

Dennis Vander Griend began his career in ethanol engineering as a student at South Dakota State University. A microbiology professor came into the engineering class, asking for a volunteer to build a still to be used for fermentation studies. That first still led to a lifelong career of designing solutions for bottlenecks and efficiency improvements in ethanol plants—the ICM dryer and evaporator design being two notable ones. Vander Griend, 63, passed away July 8 in Wichita, Kansas, after a brief illness.

“He was the godfather of the industry,” says his brother Dave VanderGriend, CEO of ICM Inc. (who spells their last name as one word). Dennis and Dave founded ICM in 1995 along with Brad Box, but the brothers’ ethanol collaboration goes back to that college engineering project in 1978. “He got a bunch of books and read up on it, then he came to my place and said, ‘We’re going to build a still,’” Dave recalls. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he handed the books to me.” The next year, the brothers trucked their still to Washington, D.C., where it turned out 190 proof alcohol to run engines in a week-long technology festival on the Washington Mall.

The duo went on to build a half dozen farm distillation columns. “In 1984, we put the plant on Lowell Broin’s farm,” Dave recalls. Lowell and his sons, Rob and Jeff, bought a defunct plant in Scotland, South Dakota, and asked the Vander Griends to help get it running. By that time, Dennis was working at a wet mill in Keokuk, Iowa, and Dave was running the High Plains ethanol plant in Colwich, Kansas. “We went back and forth doing the engineering work for the Scotland plant, and then the Aberdeen, South Dakota, plant and the Winthrop, Minnesota, plant.” The Broins went on to develop their own design company, which later became Poet LLC.

Working for High Plains Corp. for a decade, Dave’s initial focus was on getting the Colwich plant running well, tapping into his brother’s engineering skills. More plants were built for High Plains until the Vander Griends and their partner bought the engineering side of the business, along with the office building. ICM is still headquartered on that site in Colwich.

The first engineering challenge tackled by the newly formed ICM team was to build a better dryer. John Caffrey, ICM director of manufacturing and design, remembers working alongside Dennis on the later refinements to that system. “Dennis’ intellectual talent and achievement relating to our dryer system was most notable. He came up with an excellent design to deal with emissions from our ICM dryer system.” Dennis designed the ICM thermal oxidizer to incinerate emissions from the distillers dried grains dryer system. He then coupled that design with a heat recovery steam generator (HRSG) that captured all the heat required to oxidize the dryer emissions and turn that heat into steam to run the entire ethanol plant. “That steam and heat balance was very, very clever to say the least,” Caffrey says. “Dennis’ design of the ICM dryer system, the matching thermal oxidizer and HRSG system remains the gold standard for the ethanol industry’s energy recovery efforts.”

John Freidig, ICM senior manager of startups and services, began working with Dennis at ICM in 2003. “Dennis was a very complex man, but his designs were so simple,” he says, citing Dennis’ patented evaporation system design, used to condense thin stillage to be sprayed onto distillers grains or sold as syrup. “He made it so simple with minimal level control and no pressure control, just steam flow,” Freidig says. “Usually with evaps, it gets pretty complicated with pressures and temperatures.” In Dennis’ design, the typical configuration where the evap steam was condensed and routed back to the boiler was turned on its head and the steam was used first in the evaporators and then drove distillation. “You used the steam twice,” Freidig explains. The evaporator design contributed greatly to the 6,000-Btu-per-gallon of ethanol savings at the ICM plant, he adds.

The dryer and evaporator designs are on the top of Dave’s list as well, but he has many other stories to share about his younger brother—a classic absent-minded professor-type who, besides being a brilliant engineer and a bit difficult to work with, paid little attention to his appearance and many practicalities. One story stands out.

During the startup of the second plant using the new ICM design in the early 2000s, Dennis put the plant controls into manual setting. “Which is what he does,” Dave says. “He puts all the levels, all the flows in manual, and runs it by himself. He’s figuring out if this tank is filling as this tank is going down, which you can’t tell on auto. On the energy side, he puts the boiler in manual. He’s tuning everything and how it moves so he can balance the entire plant out, putting in the right amount of steam to maintain the right temperature in the beer column, the rectifier, the proof.” Needing to get some sleep, Dennis put everything back on automatic and left, forgetting one critical control—the level on the boiler steam drum, which would shut down the plant if the low water cutoff was triggered. “He left for eight hours and came back and the level in the boiler steam drum dropped an inch, which is like nothing,” Dave says. “That’s how level the plant was. To have the plant that precise, that is phenomenal. There’s nobody that I know that could do that. That’s how well he comprehended everything that was going on in the plant.”

“Dennis was simply a process engineering genius,” says Ron Fagen, who began working with the Vander Griends in 2001. Of the over 100 ethanol plants designed by Dennis at ICM, Fagen Inc. partnered to build more than 75. “There wasn’t a problem he couldn’t solve when it came to the ethanol process. I was always glad to work with Dennis, as he was pleasant, direct and quite a character. He will be missed and I was proud to call him my friend.”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Freelance Journalist