Room To Grow

FROM THE JULY ISSUE: The Nebraska Ethanol Board and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln bring targeted training to ethanol producers.
By Matt Thompson | June 18, 2019

Although workshops offered through a partnership between the Nebraska Ethanol Board and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are hosted in Nebraska, Hunter Flodman says ethanol plants from all over the industry have shown interest. In fact, the location of one of the courses was changed to accommodate attendees from across the country. “We had so much out-of-state interest from California all the way to Illinois, and everywhere in between, that we decided we wanted to move it closer to a major airport,” he says.

Flodman is an assistant professor of practice in UNL’s chemical engineering department, and a technical advisor for the Nebraska Ethanol Board. And he helps lead the Process Control Essentials workshops offered through UNL’s Nebraska Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Nebraska Ethanol Board. The groups also offer a process safety course.

“We were able to identify a need in the industry to optimize and to increase efficiency of ethanol plants,” Flodman says of the process control course. “Probably the basic need for that optimization is to make sure the plants are utilizing their basic process control system, or their distributed control system (DCS).” For a plant’s DCS to operate as efficiently as possible, Flodman says it needs to be in automatic, or closed-loop, mode. But when issues arise, plants often run the system in manual mode. “That can lead to inefficiencies resulting in a loss of profit for the company,” he says.

“Our target audience with the course would be plant operators, maintenance personnel and engineers that maintain the control equipment and the DCS at the plant,” Flodman says. The workshop involves reviewing concepts and case studies, as well as hands-on training in the chemical engineering unit operations lab at UNL. He and Scott Harmeier, of Archer Daniels Midland, developed the curriculum and instruct the workshop.
“Participants get to practice tuning control loops and troubleshooting control loops using an Excel-based loop tuning software that we’ve developed just for this workshop, and we distribute it to the participants as part of the workshop,” Flodman says. The hands-on portion makes up about half of the workshop, and the other half involves classroom work. This year’s process control course will be Aug. 6-7 in Lincoln.

Financial assistance for process control and safety course attendees from Nebraska-based ethanol plants is available through the Nebraska Ethanol Board, Flodman says.

“The Nebraska Ethanol Board wanted to give back to a lot of the plants here in Nebraska,” he says, adding that Nebraska-based ethanol employees can receive $300 tuition reimbursement for the process control workshop, and $400 reimbursement for the process safety workshop.

The two courses are fairly young—process control has been offered three times since its inception in 2016, and process safety has been offered twice. But, so far, Flodman says the response from participants has been positive, with some plants sending multiple employees to the process control workshop. “It’s always been different people from the same plant,” he says. “That’s what I would recommend for this course.

“One plant, after taking the [process control] course the first time we taught it, reported an annual cost savings of $150,000, an annual sales increase of $60,000, $14,000 reinvestment in employee skills and training for workforce practices, and one job retained, as a direct result of attending the course,” Flodman says. He adds that the financial impacts reported by 16 companies that sent employees to both the process safety and process control workshops in the 2017-2018 fiscal year totals $2.37 million.

“We’re giving them things they can take back and use and have a direct impact on their day-to-day operations and their bottom line.

“We are seeing positive feedback from the plants,” Flodman says, adding results from National Institute of Standard and Technology surveys have been positive, too. The Nebraska MEP follows up with the plants within a year after the course, he adds.

Safety First
The process safety workshop—which this year has been renamed “The OSHA Regulatory Approach to Process Safety Management”—is similarly sponsored by the Nebraska Ethanol Board and the UNL’s Nebraska MEP, but is led by professionals from the Center for Chemical Process Safety, a branch of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. “They have extensive experience in process safety,” Flodman says. “They’re required to have a minimum of 30 years of experience working in process safety.”

A process safety management program is required by OSHA and the U.S. EPA, Flodman says. “Process safety management is intended to prevent severe damage to equipment that may lead to catastrophic fires, explosions or toxic releases,” he says. “These incidents have the potential to injure workers or neighboring residents and so the ethanol industry is required by federal regulations to have this management program in place.”

Flodman says there aren’t many opportunities for safety training in ethanol-producing states. “There’s a lot of them down in Texas where the chemical and oil industry is, but not as many in this area of the country just because there’s not as much of that type of industry, especially in Nebraska,” he says. “So, we identified it as a potential opportunity that could help plants maintain their management program for process safety.”

He adds that while there are similar courses offered through other professional organizations, they aren’t tailored for the ethanol industry. “We’re really trying to target the ethanol industry and really the course was designed for the ethanol industry,” he says.

The first process safety course was held in Kearney, Nebraska, but as interest increased, the Nebraska MEP partnered with Novozymes and moved the course to Blair, Nebraska. “The two years that we taught the process safety workshop for the ethanol industry, we’ve had a total of 54 participants from 22 companies and representing 14 different states,” Flodman says. This year, the course will take place Oct. 8-10.

Jonathan Dancy, biofuel account manager with Novozymes, says the partnership with the Nebraska MEP began after receiving feedback from attendees of Novozymes’ maintenance manager’s workshop. “They were happy with what we had offered in that workshop, but they also communicated there was a need for better safety training,” he says, adding that the tuition collected from the course goes to the American Institute of Chemical Engineering. “It was kind of a perfect match and a continuation of an existing relationship that was already in place with our Blair facility and UNL.”

Dancy says he was a “light attendee” of the first safety course. “These instructors were so good at keeping it relevant and interesting to keep the audience engaged,” he says. “They have all that personal experience. Lots of stories that they can insert to keep it interesting. Lots of group work activity where they can get together and work through these different case studies. There’ll be slide decks where you go over material, and you drive it home with an exercise or an activity that really makes it more fun and engaging.”

And keeping the workshop engaging is important, Dancy says. “Why do we go to work? It’s so that we can have a good life otherwise and come home safely. It’s such a critical part of the overall goal.

“We’re exceptionally pleased and thankful for the relationship that we’ve got with (the Nebraska MEP),” he says. “It’s a win all around, really. If you think about all the people that are involved, everyone benefits in this one.”

Dancy says it’s time for the course to branch out beyond Nebraska. “We’ve hit a lot of the accounts in Nebraska, so this year the focus is going to be on customers in other states,” he says.

Continuing Education
Flodman says there is potential for more advanced courses, particularly process control courses, in the future. “This is a field that’s always changing, and it’s always improving because it is involved with technology and computers and sensors,” he says.

And the Nebraska MEP will offer an animal food safety course this year that will focus on potential hazards with the production of distillers grains. Bismark Martinez, project director with Nebraska MEP, says the Food Safety Modernization Act requires plants to have a staff member who understands the production system and how to control it. “Byproducts in the ethanol industry, in certain cases, may have some mycotoxins in it,” he says. “And when that byproduct is diverted to animal food, that could be a problem.

“The whole idea is just to make the people understand what the minimum requirements under FDA are and be able to produce safe dried distillers grains, in this case,” he says.

The animal food safety course isn’t eligible for tuition reimbursement like the other two courses are. Martinez says the Nebraska MEP received a grant to offer the course in Kansas and Missouri, in addition to Nebraska.
Registration for process control, process safety and animal food safety courses is available on the Nebraska MEP’s website: nemep.unl.edu.


Author: Matt Thompson
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
701.738.4922
mthompson@bbiinternational.com