More From Less

Finding ways to convert corn starch faster, cheaper and more efficiently is a virtually endless pursuit for ethanol producers, writes Tom Bryan of BBI International. That search is highlighted in the lead feature in the August issue of EPM.
By Tom Bryan | July 24, 2014

Today, top performing U.S. ethanol plants surrender only 3 to 5 percent of corn’s total fermentable starch, leaving it behind in distillers grains. Considering that producers were giving up twice that amount of sugar a decade ago, conversion efficiency gains should rank among the industry’s most important modern achievements. Indeed, ethanol producers are closing in on the theoretical maximum yield from starch alone, and therefore eyeing corn fiber. The arrival of the cellulosic era, however, does not mean that optimizing grain ethanol production is yesterday’s battle. Rather, finding ways to convert corn starch faster, cheaper and more efficiently is a virtually endless pursuit.  
In our lead feature, “Toolkit For Ethanol’s Next Stage,” we look at decisions, investments and commitments producers have made during their quests for maximization. EPM Senior Editor Susanne Retka Schill reports that plant optimization, for most, is achieved over time through many interrelated campaigns and process trials. Illinois River Energy LLC, for example, has initiated 30 to 40 projects in recent years, all essentially aimed at incremental production gains. The plant’s story is illustrative of the persistent, step-by-step mindset ethanol producers must have to be competitive in today’s industry.

Retka Schill reports that the latest mechanical treatments like selective milling, cavitation, and ultrasound, along with improved enzyme cocktails and more effective and versatile yeasts, are the current big-ticket spends producers are making to stay competitive. Still, though, the simplest way to make more money in good times is to increase throughput. For that reason, many plants are now hyperfocused on improving reliability and reducing downtime. IRE’s former manager tells us, “[The plant] used to have seven-day shutdowns, two or three times a year, and now it’s five days maybe twice a year.” In other words, being down 10 days a year versus 14 or 21—at 145,000 gallons a day—is a big deal to any profit-minded business. 

Plants are making big strides with and without big technology purchases. Pinal Energy in Arizona reduced its downtime and increased its production yields by making distillation modifications and using Six-Sigma methodology to pinpoint the plant’s temperature and pH sweet spot. Similarly, we learn how Novozymes is able to capture plant data that a producer may use to establish its very own “Golden Batch” profile. Think of it as optimization via data analysis.

Process optimization is not synonymous with plant enhancement, of course. The former improves the efficiency of traditional grain ethanol production, while the latter gives a plant the capability to produce new things like cellulosic ethanol, novel coproducts and low-carbon power. Writ large, however, optimization, maximization and enhancement are all about the same thing: getting more from less. And if that isn’t the definition of sustainable, it really should be.