Equipping for High-Protein

Combining existing and new technologies, ICM is helping ethanol producers leap into high-protein feed production. The company is taking a unique approach to marketing, showing customers how its specialty equipment works to explain what it yields.
By Katie Schroeder | April 13, 2022

The ability to produce new and enhanced coproducts has helped ethanol producers stay afloat through difficult times—the low-margin environment of the pandemic among them. Corn oil extraction, which thrust producers into new feed and fuel markets a decade ago, was the industry’s first real move past first-generation coproducts—and it proved to be a difference maker. Now, high-protein feed production, already on the doorsteps of aquaculture, poultry and pet food, is poised to be the next. Competing for business in the still nascent high protein space, ICM Inc. is offering an Advanced Processing Package that gives producers the ability to make 50% protein, yeast-enriched feed—trademarked Protomax—while increasing plant efficiency and lowering carbon intensity.

“Our industry has long been plagued by undervaluing our coproducts, largely because there’s this perfectly imperfect pile, not truly designed for any individual animal species,” says Matt Durler, vice president of feed development with ICM, referring to standard DDGS. “Through APP we give the plant flexibility to design feeds best [suited] for their target markets. This reduces waste in the value chain and, overall, makes it a more efficient production system, adding value to both the producer and the end user.”

Ultimately, ICM says the installation of APP should boost ethanol plant profitability—providing an “EBITDA uplift” with the added benefits of improved efficiency and a more diversified product portfolio.  

“At a high level, I would say ethanol producers today, and over the last five years, have felt the pain of really bad times and the joys of really good times,” says Adam Anderson, ICM product manager. “In any environment, having an increase in your EBITDA is nothing but a benefit. Our APP system, with its fully integrated approach, brings the high value of diversified feed products and diversified revenue streams while also coupling that with increased efficiencies, consistent protein production [and] opportunity for a reduced carbon footprint … at the lowest OPEX possible.”

APP Systems
There are four key technologies that make up the APP technology platform: Selective Milling Technology (SMT) and Fiber Separation Technology (FST)—both integrated before fermentation—and Feed Optimization Technology (FOT) and Thin Stillage Solids System (TS4) technology, integrated post-distillation. The APP system separates the process stream into five clean piles, which producers can then combine at their discretion to fit their unique market. The piles include fiber, solubles, yeast, protein with yeast, and distillers corn oil (DCO).

Although these four technologies can work separately, they are used together to produce Protomax feed. “They bring the highest value to the plant collectively, but each technology brings an efficiency to the plant that is beneficial,” says Alex Wayman, ICM director of project development. Wayman explains that certain customers have taken a stairstep approach to adopting APP, installing parts of the package with the goal of eventually acquiring the whole thing.
Wayman and Anderson outline each of the four technologies that make up the APP system. Wayman explains that SMT is integrated early in the liquefication process and used to get right-sized particles, which maintain the fiber to make it easier to remove it later on, while exposing more oil for recovery and more starch for ethanol conversion.

FST removes fiber prior to fermentation, directing it into a clean fiber pile for feed. “There’s really no value in having that fiber within fermentation; it’s all unfermentable, so by separating that [up front] we bring multiple benefits to the plant,” Anderson says. These benefits include freeing up more space in fermentation, creating a less viscous process stream—which goes through pumps—and increasing capacity in the beer column. Wayman adds, “I think the innovative [aspect of] ICM’s process is that  … to create the clean fiber, we’re not carrying anything through that should be going through fermentation. We’re extracting it, removing it through our process, washing that fiber and then pressing that fiber to produce a clean fiber pile.”

FOT and TS4 use density separation to further purify process streams. The finest solids are separated from the thin stillage and directed to the dryer. The cake itself contains the high-value concentrated protein and yeast protein. “The protein stream [from] FOT, and the protein and yeast [stream from] TS4, combine back together to create Protomax,” Anderson says. 

The FOT separates crude protein from the process stream while maximizing oil production. Anderson elaborates, “FOT and TS4, they do their separations to produce the clean process streams of concentrated protein, concentrated protein with yeast, and then the solubles again are [added] post evaporation.” The FOT scroll allows them to remove water mechanically and drive the solids percentage up to 42 percent. The FOT technology also assists in oil recovery [by] purifying the protein—not allowing any oil to be lost with, typically, crude protein, according to Wayman.

The TS4 system uses a centrifuge to extract high protein, yeast-enriched particles. “TS4 allows the dryers and the evaporators to do what they do better,” Anderson explains. “It takes the solids and sends them to the dryers, where the dryers are very good at drying water out of solids, and it takes the solids away from the evaporator so the evaporators can evaporate water out of a liquid.”

The APP system utilizes the ICM rotary drum dryer to dry high-protein feed products, Anderson explains. “There’s upwards of around 400 ICM rotary dryers in the industry, and for those plants that already have our dryer system, there’s a very high likelihood that they will be able to put the APP system in, produce a high protein Protomax feed product and dry it with their existing dryers—no new dryer needed,” Anderson says, explaining how the APP system runs a high solid, low water feed to the dryer, which allows the dryer to run with “minimal natural gas and minimal temperature.” The dryer also has superb  temperature control capability to dry “high value feed” products optimally, Anderson explains.

Durler explains the operational benefits of the dryer, “The beauty of being able to maintain your rotary dryer like the rest of our system is operational ease relative to other protein separation systems,” he says. “The resiliency and ease of operation for the dryer has long been the industry standard, and the [small] amount of additional manpower it takes to run our system, we believe, is also best in class.”

As of early March, the Element facility in Colwich, Kansas, is currently running APP with three other plants in the process of getting the system up and running, according to Anderson.

Market Opportunities
Increased protein content opens up a lot of new markets for ethanol plant feed coproducts, Durler explains. In the past, these products would only go to the beef and dairy market, which have value ceilings. High protein feed allows producers to reach a wider variety of markets.

“Because of the improved amino acid profile, palatability and digestibility, access to pets and aquaculture give us a tremendous amount of upside in markets we’re otherwise not able to access,” Durler says. “By pulling the fiber away, we also have an increased presence in pork and poultry that have an aversion to fiber as monogastrics don’t have the same utility as a ruminant would.”

Although high protein feed is the primary benefit of the APP package, it also opens up the possibilities for other feeds such as Solbran made from the clean fiber and soluble piles mixed together. Similar to DDGS, this feed is designed for the beef and dairy market, but with a higher value. It can be produced alongside Protomax for maximum high value feed production.

The APP system’s ability to create clean piles allows for plants to tailor their products to fit their end users’ needs. “It gives the customer an opportunity to start designing feeds for their target markets,” Wayman says. “That gives them flexibility. When they can take those piles and blend them as needed to meet the highest value opportunities in the market, locally, regionally or internationally.  

Efficiencies and CI Score Improvements
While the principal goal of APP installation is to produce Protomax high-protein feed, ICM’s technology also brings added efficiencies to an ethanol plant. “With that fiber being removed from fermentation, you’ll start seeing better heat transfer through exchangers, you’ll see more room inside your fermenters, you’ll see debottlenecking inside your beer column,” Wayman explains.

The added efficiency from the APP system also yields carbon intensity benefits. The higher percentage of solids going to the dryers can save energy due to the fact that the dryers do not need to run as long, Wayman explains. “To paint a picture operationally, if that amount of water doesn’t have to be dried out at the dryers, that equates to a reduction in natural gas, which is an expensive operational cost for plants and also affects their carbon score,” he says.

The other factor which impacts CI score is the heat transfer which happens when fiber goes through the fermentation process. “For a standard Corn Belt plant that’s drying 100 percent of their feed, we could see the possibility to lower their CI score two to four points,” Anderson says.

Ultimately, while designed to create high protein feed, the APP system brings much more to the table by giving producers the flexibility to make coproducts that fit their market. “Our focus is on Protomax, Solbran or the combined distillers pile, but because of the five independent streams and independent clean piles, we are giving ethanol plants the opportunity to recombine those to best leverage their competitive advantage based on what their end users need,” Durler says. “So really, there’s a hundred combinations of how you might do that. We’re giving the plant the flexibility to work with the end user to optimize the utilization of these streams in any combination that adds value.”

Author: Katie Schroeder
Contact: katie.schroeder@bbiinternational.com