Pressure to Perform

FROM THE OCTOBER ISSUE: Growing export markets and new coproduct lines are increasing demands on the ethanol laboratory.
By Susanne Retka Schill | September 04, 2018

Most new trends in the ethanol industry come to roost in the ethanol lab, where process monitoring, product quality control and new technology assessments keep the small staff busy. Implementing new enzymes or yeasts means running baseline tests and then verifying relatively small changes in yield, requiring precise and accurate measurement. The Food Safety Modernization Act means new levels of monitoring for distillers grains. And, in many cases, the move toward exporting ethanol to new countries means new specifications.

All the changes add up to increased pressure on the ethanol plant laboratory, says Kristy Moore, principal of KMoore Consulting. “I’m being asked by boards to give the perspective on what it’s going to take to get into export markets,” she says. “They have to realize that for all these years we’ve been making fuel ethanol with ASTM grade, and that’s it. Now, we’re going to add two, or even five, new product codes. We’re going to have additional testing, education and training on new pieces of equipment and new expectations. And we’re going to have to know how to anticipate new product influences.”

Moore says that while exporting ethanol is similar to loading unit trains in the Midwest bound for Canada or New York, the process utilizes many new steps. “It’s going to leave the Midwest ethanol plant, on a rail car to a port, offloaded into a storage tank, loaded into a vessel. And the vessel is going to travel 10,000 miles and go into a port in China, India, Malaysia or Indonesia. It’s going to be tested on ship before it’s offloaded, and that’s where the money exchanges hands.” Then there are additional miles as the product is moved to its final destination. “We’re going to have to make sure our plants are operating at a level of precision, that our testing and results are spot on and accurate, because you can’t afford to bring that product back,” Moore says.

In many of the target export markets, brand new specifications are being written, Moore points out. “We’re going into markets where ethanol has never been used. Many countries are very excited about developing an ethanol market, as it’s important to agriculture. But, a lot of times, they are starting from scratch and don’t have any ideas about specifications or test methods.” Some are using ASTM specifications as a guide, others looking to ISO or even Brazilian specs. “What we find is there’s different water specs or acidity specs, additional testing like conductivity or for higher alcohols or phosphorus. We’re seeing all these different parameters, partly because they’ve had no experts from the ethanol industry help them or educate them. They write these specifications as best they can, and it’s become a melting pot.” 

Not only is there no global ethanol standard, there’s no global gasoline standard, she adds, and it’s often complicated by differing approaches to how beverage alcohol is handled. In the case of Mexico, she points out, the country struggled over whether to allow a denaturant, but ultimately chose to. “They understood our argument that allowing the same fuel ethanol as used in the U.S. would be very good for their gasoline markets and also protect their beverage alcohol market.”

With the additional liability in export shipments, Moore suggests plants consider reinvesting in their laboratories. “I do think we’re going to need to step up our game at the plant in laboratories. Think of the risk in sending our products 10,000 and 20,000 miles away. There’s pressure to know that certificate of analysis has to be absolutely accurate.” And plants need to understand some of the changes required for different markets, such as turning off the denaturant for product for Brazil. While that’s simple enough, Brazil also has a lower water spec, which means tweaking distillation. Other countries have a different acidity specification, which might require running a degasser, or using a corrosion inhibitor with a different buffering agent for pH. “There’s all kinds of things that we may have to do in order to produce product on spec for these other countries,” she says. And often, the laboratory is where work is done to understand and implement the new product specification.

Third-Party Role
Monthly certification of an ethanol lab’s product tests is routine in the industry, and can even be done weekly in some cases, says Brent Pohlman, president of Midwest Laboratories. The company is seeing an uptick in ethanol plant clients, partly because demands are increasing as equipment is aging out. “We’re seeing increased volume right now because plants can’t keep up with buying new equipment in their own labs,” he says. “We get more clients just because they are checking their equipment. We know that instrumentation over time sees wear and tear, and especially with samples of ethanol.”

Midwest Labs updated all its ethanol testing equipment in the past three years. “The life span of equipment is five to 10 years. A lot of plants send more samples, thinking they can get a few more months out of their equipment. And, I think we’re seeing it now because 10 years ago, everyone had new equipment.” Plants can buy some time on purchasing a new piece of equipment that perhaps costs $70,000 by outsourcing tests at $50 or $60 each, he says. “But only if the turnaround time works.”

Timeliness has been aided by a major change in shipping regulations. Until the past year, any amount of ethanol was considered a hazard material and required special training and paperwork to ship. Those rules have been relaxed, Pohlman says, meaning small quantities of ethanol are no longer considered hazmat. Speedy shipping for samples is critical when third-party analysis is needed to confirm a plant’s results, he says. “Most of the time there’s ethanol waiting to be shipped or received.”

Pohlman notes two other trends in the ethanol industry. “We are seeing an increase in research and development,” he says. The plant’s laboratory can remain focused on day-to-day production, “and we can be that outsourced facility in research and development where they’re trying to do new techniques or developments in their process.

“On the DDG side, one thing that’s kind of new is nutritional labeling,” Pohlman says. He suspects it’s partly because customers start with an approximate fiber analysis, but ultimately decide the label needs upgrading. “Nutritional labeling is not cheap. It can cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per test. But they’ll do that for marketing, trying to get the most out of their coproduct.”

Besides the need for upgraded labeling when marketing low-oil or low-fiber DDGS to new customers, Moore explains that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration upgraded its regulations under FSMA. “They now treat animal feed products as food,” she says. “Our plants are generating food products with food-grade analysis.”

FSMA, coproduct innovations and ethanol exports merge in the ethanol laboratory. “The pressures on our laboratories are growing,” Moore says. While lab managers are sometimes viewed as the “police to find things out of spec, the lab is more of a tool. But just like all tools, you’ve got to keep the technology current. You’ve got to keep the training current.”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Freelance journalist
[email protected]