Making Water Work

It may be a dry-grind process, but ethanol production requires water. U.S. Water Services works to ensure the growing industry isn't left high and dry.
By Michael Shirek | June 05, 2007
The production capacity of the U.S. ethanol industry was a mere 2.2 billion gallons per year when U.S. Water Services and Utility Chemicals Inc. merged in 2000. In the seven years since the two companies joined, U.S. ethanol producers have added nearly 4 billion gallons of production capacity and U.S. Water Services has intuitively stepped up its operations to parallel that growth. While its original focus was on chemical sales, the challenges and opportunities presented by the ethanol build-out led the company to change its business philosophy and focus more on engineering, equipment and consulting services aimed at providing complete solutions to a company's water needs. The recent opening of a new warehouse at its company headquarters in Cambridge, Minn., the expansion of the company's chemical manufacturing facility, the creation of two new divisions and the addition of 75 full-time employees are tangible evidence that the ethanol industry's growth is spilling over into other sectors.

"U.S. Water Services has experienced tremendous growth with the rise of the renewable fuels industry," says Allan Bly, the company's president. "A large portion of our business is in the renewable fuels industry, but we serve numerous industries. What the ethanol boom has done is to allow us to expand geographically at a much faster rate than we had originally projected."

Although U.S. Water Services also serves industries such as power generation, commercial real estate, mining and food processing, it has created a unique niche in the ethanol industry. The recent surge in construction of ethanol plants has put the company's water systems in demand by various design and construction companies. These firms will partner with U.S. Water Services throughout the progression of the construction phase to bring plants on line. "We're actually involved in the entire process," says Communications Director Jack Carroll. "Our team of water treatment professionals test potential water sources [and] assist with plant design and permitting, while working closely with personnel during installation, start-up and continued operations." U.S. Water Services conducted 36 successful ethanol plant start-ups and provides water treatment services for numerous other plants across the country.

In the Headlines
It isn't surprising that a water services company would grow with the ethanol industry. As more dry-grind corn-based ethanol plants spring up in the Midwest, the demand for solutions to water issues follows. "Water has quickly become one of the hot-button issues [in] the renewable fuels industry," Bly says. "Challenges such as state and federal water discharge restrictions, shortages of available water resources and the increased sizes of production facilities are making water one of the most important considerations in ethanol plant construction or expansion."

All three of those issues have come to the forefront in one form or another in the past few years. In September 2005, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) sought to place more stringent limits on iron discharge from ethanol plants. In California's San Joaquin Valley, regulations are in place to prohibit all aqueous industrial discharge. And as far as water shortage concerns go, one need look no further than the nearest proposed ethanol plant for issues to emerge. The solutions to these problems range from conducting environmental studies to minimizing water discharge impact to—in extreme cases—the complete elimination of water discharge. Water availability concerns can be addressed in a number of ways.

When the IDNR took its cue from the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program to lower iron discharge limits, U.S. Water Services worked with ethanol construction and design firms alongside the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association to come up with a comprehensive look at the technical reasons to decrease the iron discharge limit from 1 parts per million (ppm) to 0.16 ppm. When the results of an investigation indicated that the environmental effects of a 0.16 ppm limit were not scientifically justified, the IDNR set the iron discharge limit at its current level of 1 ppm.

In Medera County, Calif., Pacific Ethanol Inc. was planning a 35 MMgy facility that was in need of a water system that didn't yet exist in commercial ethanol plants. The zero liquid discharge requirements meant U.S. Water Services needed to design a system that recycled all water used in the plant. Although it came at a cost, the system was essential. "[Zero liquid discharge technology] can cost anywhere from $5 million to $20 million, depending on water quality in the local area," Bly says. "However by operating with no water discharge the permitting process becomes significantly easier, especially when expanding the plant."

When it comes to plants that don't operate under such strict regulations, the technology is also applicable. "Depending on the specific permit regulations that a plant must run with, it's often possible to significantly reduce liquid discharge volume without actually [eliminating] it," Bly says. "We strive for this at all of our plants and in some cases we have been able to reduce the amount of water used per gallon of ethanol produced by 30 percent or more from the industry average."

That 30 percent reduction in water used per gallon is becoming critical as the industry continues to grow, and the size of the ethanol plants increases. "Water is certainly one of the limiting factors to plant size," Bly says. "Most of the dry-mill plants built to date have used groundwater (wells) to supply their plants. The underground aquifer size and the number of users already on the aquifer will limit how much water a plant can take."

Minimizing fresh water intake is the first step in keeping a plant from outstripping its available water supply. More efficient use of that water is one way to reduce demand, but another possible solution is grey water. By utilizing water that has already been used in another process, the need for fresh water coming into the system can be reduced. "As plant sizes increase, the economics of surface water sources and grey water reuse becomes much better," Bly says. "From an environmental view, grey water reuse is the most exciting, but is also the most challenging. We are exploring this option at a couple of sites currently, and it's only a matter of time before they start becoming more common."

Dedicated to Ethanol
With more of its resources being directed toward the ethanol industry, U.S. Water Services recently created two new divisions. The Equipment and Engineering group was established to address the increased demand for consulting services regarding water treatment equipment and installation. This group demonstrates how far the company has come since it was in the business of selling chemicals. U.S. Water Services also added the Ethanol Process Technologies group, which is devoted specifically to the engineering, equipment and chemicals designed to enhance ethanol process performance. Although the Ethanol Process Technologies group is working on improvements in process technology in the corn-based ethanol sector, the group is also preparing for the next generation of ethanol production—cellulosic ethanol. Although the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol production isn't yet a reality, the research and development is underway. Bly says his company will be on the forefront of the industry when it comes to contributing technologies to the commercial process as it comes to the marketplace.

U.S. Water Services' contributions don't end at the technical side of the industry. The company is an industry partner in the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council (EPIC) and is a sponsor of the Rahal Letterman Racing Team Ethanol No. 17 car driven by Jeff Simmons in the 100 percent ethanol-fueled IndyCar series. "It's very exciting to be part of an industry that is bringing an economic resurgence to rural America while at the same time producing a product which benefits the environment," Bly says. "Organizations such as EPIC have done a great job of getting the message of ethanol use to the consumer and it's only a matter of time before E85 and other ethanol blends are available from coast to coast."

Although coast-to-coast availability of ethanol still has a way to go in becoming a reality, U.S. Water Services is doing its part to encourage use in its part of the country where E85 is widely available. Its fleet of company cars and service trucks all run exclusively on E85. As the geographic footprint of U.S. Water Services expands, so too will the market availability of the product it's helping to produce.

Michael Shirek is Ethanol Producer Magazine online editor. Reach him at or (701) 746-8385.