Ethanol’s Dynamic Duo

A year after bringing their showcase plant online, the partnership between ICM Inc. and The Andersons remains poised to bear fruit. Element LLC features selective milling and fiber separation alongside a unique corn fiber-to-ethanol platform.
By Tom Bryan | July 15, 2020



Ethanol Producer Awards:


ICM Inc. / The Andersons


A stone’s throw from ICM’s headquarters in Colwich, Kansas, a still-new ethanol plant lies ready to fulfill its destiny as a biofuels game-changer when market conditions improve. The state-of-the-art 70 MMgy facility, just a year running, is a vision made manifest by ICM Inc. CEO Dave VanderGriend, who says Element LLC will be the most efficient, lowest-cost ethanol plant in the world once its impressive suite of technology hums in unison. 

VanderGriend isn’t alone in this vision. His company partnered with The Andersons Inc. on Element, and the companies own and operate the promising biorefinery jointly. The power collaboration, which turned heads in the biofuels space when it was announced a few years ago, was designed to leverage the specialties of each enterprise: ICM for its technology, The Andersons for its competencies in merchandising and logistics.

In terms of operational strategy, VanderGriend says, the idea is that the collective know-how of both companies will result in an ultra-high-yielding ethanol plant that brings to bear the technology and production intelligence ICM has amassed over two decades. “The purpose of Element is rooted in what we’ve learned over the past 10 to 20 years, and how we can apply that to demonstrate what a true next-generation ethanol plant looks like,” he says. “That’s what this is all about.”

The facility is almost a working showroom of proven and novel technologies developed by ICM, including its hopeful grain fiber-to-ethanol platform, Generation 1.5—which, VanderGriend says, has been “up and down” over the past several months in a sagacious commissioning. “I just keep telling everyone, ‘We’ll get there. We’ll get there. Be patient.’”

VanderGriend has always taken a measured, long view approach to technology development. Entering the ethanol industry in 1978, he says, his company didn’t actually design an ethanol plant, in whole, until 2001. “It took 23 years, working for High Plains Corp., remodeling plants and helping plants,” he says. “We took everything we learned prior to 2001 and incorporated it into that first ethanol plant. And you know what, that model was reproduced 115 times over the next 15 years. But what have we learned since? What should ethanol production look like now?”

In part, the answers to those questions are being dictated by the allure of California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which favors biofuels made with less energy. “We wanted to minimize natural gas and electricity to whatever extent we could,” VanderGriend says. “So, we installed our Advanced Gasification Technology at Element (utilizing wood waste) with a let-down turbine, so we could make our own gas and our own electricity.” 

The combined heat and power generator at Element is expected to offset more than 70% of the plant’s natural gas requirements, and as much as 80% of its electrical demand. VanderGriend says Element’s gasification system was still being commissioned when the COVID-19 downturn put a hold on things. The irony of the facility’s temporary shutdown is, of course, its latent efficiency. But VanderGriend says the novelty of some of the plant’s technologies, and the protracted nature of commissioning it all, made it practical for the team at Element to “step back” and recharge during the pandemic. “It’s like anything else,” VanderGriend says. “When we built Russell [now PureField Ingredients], it took us about a year to work through all the nuances of that plant, but we ended up with a very good facility that was reproducible. The same thing will happen with Element over time—once demand returns.”

VanderGriend says Colwich, Kansas, may not have seemed like an obvious location for a new ethanol plant. However, it is located on the edge of the western Corn Belt, relatively close to California, and has ready-access to both the BNSF and Union Pacific railways. Building Element there made sense for two other reasons: It was next door to ICM’s headquarters, and there was existing ethanol plant infrastructure on site, the remnants of a former Abengoa facility.

Element’s marquee features, aside from its corn fiber-to-ethanol orientation, is ICM’s Selective Milling Technology V2 and Fiber Separation Technology Next Gen. The milling technology is a grind system designed to maximize ethanol and distillers corn oil production, while the fiber separation platform supports that effort by separating the fiber from the process. “It’s all there,” VanderGriend says, explaining how the technologies are interconnected. “You can’t go directly to Gen 1.5 without clean fiber.” Ultimately, the Gen 1.5 cellulosic process should produce more than 5 MMgy of cellulosic ethanol at Element, along with a unique high-value animal feed.

VanderGriend says managing such an ambitious project has been a matter of prioritizing technology development. “We took a break from gasification to focus on Gen 1.5, and now we’ve decelerated on Gen. 1.5 to give gasification more attention again,” he says. “It’s the only way you can effectively manage this kind of innovation. Element really is different from other plants, from its use of roller mills upfront instead of hammer mills—to keep your fiber larger for separation—to doing a high-protein feed right after fermentation, directly off the centrifuges. It’s all very unique.”

Combining an array of separate but related technologies in one plant was a necessary challenge for VanderGriend. “We didn’t have it all in any one place,” he says, adding that it was a lofty vision that, for the most part, came together the way his engineers drew it up. “Nothing is ever as perfect as you plan it,” he says. “There are always some things you would do differently based on what you discover later. But Element is very functional. Its bones are good, and we’re optimistic that it will end up being the model plant we intend it to be.”

As for the partnership with The Andersons, VanderGriend says it has been successful, despite having to mesh two strong corporate cultures together on an ambitious first-of-its-kind project. “These collaborations are never without challenges, but The Andersons is a great company full of good people. They saw an opportunity to take that next step and develop Element with us, and we’re all determined to see it work out.”

ICM Inc. and The Andersons were nominated for this award by Doug Rivers of Sunflwr Inc.