Wringing Out More Corn Oil

While most ethanol producers aren’t actively pursuing DCO yields over 1.2 pounds per bushel, the pursuit of ultra-high, or even theoretical maximum yield, is as compelling as it is consequential. Both the process and the market must be considered.
By Holly Jessen | December 20, 2021

Mick Henderson, general manager of Commonwealth Agri-Energy LLC, considers it a balancing act. To increase the facility’s corn oil yield he is focused on optimizing his existing systems and other efforts without aggressively reducing the fat content of the distillers grains produced at the plant. At least for now.

“I wouldn’t pay a super premium for the equipment or the ingredients, but I’d like to know who is, and make sure that in my neighborhood and in my market that I’m not the last guy,” he says.

The Hopkinsville, Kentucky, ethanol plant currently produces 48 to 50 MMgy of ethanol and markets dry distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) with a minimum of 6 percent crude fat content. The plant is in poultry producing country, where fat is an important part of the diet. “If you took a 50 percent bigger cut off the distillers, go from 6 percent fat, which is our minimum ticket today, and go down to 3 percent, you’d have a much better value for the corn oil you separate,” Henderson says, “but what if you don’t sell your feed at the same price you had before?”

For the last couple of years the facility has been extracting 0.9 to 0.95 pounds of corn oil per bushel, a competitive yield, and has been working to ramp up to 1 pound per bushel. “Just to get 10 percent more, to go from 0.9 to 1 pounds per bushel, would be significant,” he says. “It may not be a huge technology leap, as it may not cost me a lot more to get there, but it would be extremely valuable.”
Henderson’s ears perked up at the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo this past summer, when James Broghammer, CEO of Pine Lake Corn Processors, in Steamboat Rock, Iowa, said his facility was making investments to increase its corn oil yields to 1.25 pounds per bushel. Henderson and Broghammer spoke as part of a producer panel at FEW.

Green Plains Inc. is another company reaching for similarly high corn oil yields. During its third quarter earnings call, held Nov. 4, Todd Becker, president, CEO and director of Green Plains, spoke on the company’s efforts to roll out Fluid Quip Technologies’ trademarked MSC system. It has been in operation at Green Plains’ ethanol production facility in Shenandoah, Iowa, since 2020 and has achieved yields of 1.1 to 1.2 pounds per bushel, Becker said. He also revealed that the MSC system installed at Green Plains’ Wood River, Nebraska, plant had been operational for a while, with yields of 1.2 pounds or higher. “We believe these are some of the highest yields achieved in the industry as Fluid Quip's technology is incredibly expanding corn oil yields,” he said, “and we believe this is just the beginning.”

In addition, efforts to debottleneck operations at all Green Plains facilities has pushed corn oil yields at traditional ethanol plants without MSC up toward 1 pound per bushel. The company has said it expects to have the capacity to produce more than 330 million pounds of corn oil annually by the end of 2022.

Revenue from corn oil has had a significant impact on the bottom line for the company. “With vegetable oil prices 30 cents to 40 cents a pound, or more, above historical averages and rising, we could see total corn oil contribution exceed $160 million at 65 cents per pound as a baseload next year as well,” Becker said during the call. “Which is well over $100 million more than historical contributions.”

So, what’s the average corn oil yield across the dry grind ethanol industry? Chuck Gallop, director of innovation for ICM Inc., says it’s somewhere around 0.7 to 0.8 pounds per bushel of corn oil to a ground bushel of corn. “Of course, this number varies depending on geographical location, as fat content in the corn changes, so will the oil recovery potential,” Gallop says.

Juan Vargas-Ramirez, technical service scientist with Novozymes, spoke at the FEW about corn oil extraction and touched on the topic of theoretical maximum yield. Using an average corn oil yield of 0.75 pounds per bushel, he calculated theoretical maximum yield at approximately 1.9 pounds per bushel, meaning an average dry grind ethanol plant recovers about 40 percent of total oil potential.

That assumes a standard test weight of 56 pounds per bushel, a dry weight moisture of 15.8 percent and oil content of 3.9 percent for corn (numbers from the U.S. Grains Council 2020/2021 Corn Harvest Quality Report), Vargas-Ramirez said in his presentation.

Getting There
Beyond plant optimization, Commonwealth Agri-Energy’s strategy to increase corn oil yield includes utilizing protease enzymes from IFF, the company that merged with DuPont’s Nutrition and Biosciences business in early 2021. “We do our own twists and turns, but we haven’t bought a package that you can buy off the shelf from some very good companies,” Henderson says.

Another thing the company has done is upgrade from two small Flottweg Tricanter centrifuges during a plant expansion nearly four years ago. “We went to a bigger machine that is a lot more typical for the plants that use the Flottweg centrifuge,” he says. “We wanted to be kind of standardized for that so the spare parts and service would be a little more normalized.”

To optimize ethanol production and pull out more corn oil, producers must examine and understand every stage in the process. That means a close look at everything, from “stem to stern,” Henderson says. “We call it the canary in the coal mine. If the canary stops singing, as in if you stop producing oil off the backend of your process, you’ve got to go find out where upstream you may have changed something that has affected your yield,” he says, adding that it’s important to balance between ethanol and corn oil yield. “You have to be careful that you don’t lose focus about the whole package.”

Keith Jakel, sales and marketing manager for Fluid Quip, agrees that plant optimization is a good first step. As of October, the company had done several corn oil optimization studies at ethanol plants in the previous several months, helping clients find ways to capture as much corn oil as possible from their current system before any capital expenditures or operating expenditures are made. “Look internally first,” he says.

For companies that want to go further, there are multiple technology providers with various corn oil-related solutions. For example, ICM is introducing a new technology called FOT Recovery, Gallop says. FOT Recovery is an expansion of the company’s Feed Optimization Technology. Each can be installed as a standalone technology or together.

FOT Oil Recovery comes in response to the high demand for corn oil. How much it will increase corn oil yields is dependent on the ethanol plant. “We are performing onsite trailer testing with Flottweg centrifuges so we can come onto your plant site, test your feedstock in real time and tell you exactly what the oil yield potential will be,” he says.

Producers looking to install ICM’s full Advanced Processing Package (APP) produce ProtoMax, a 50 percent protein animal feed. APP is made up of four technologies, including the previously mentioned Feed Optimization Technology. The other three are Selective Milling Technology, which has been installed at about 35 ethanol plants, as well as Fiber Separation Technology and Thin Stillage Solids Separations System. Again, the technologies can be installed separately or together. “Our advanced processing is much like Johnny Cash’s Cadillac, you can install it one piece at a time, if you want,” Gallop says, adding that ICM’s technologies are trademarked as well as patented or patent pending.
A related technology is Visionary Fiber Technology’s fiber reactor, of which ICM is the exclusive distributor. That process cleans up corn oil to increase its value as a feedstock for renewable diesel production. “We do have one system sold and it’s under construction as we talk, and by the time this article is published that system should be online and producing deionized distillers corn oil,” Gallop says.

Fluid Quip is the technology provider behind Green Plains’ efforts to install MSC at all its ethanol plants to produce Ultra-High Protein Feed, a 50 percent purity protein feed, as well as increase corn oil production. In addition to Shenandoah and Wood River, which are operational, the MSC system is under construction at the company’s Mount Vernon, Indiana, and Central City, Nebraska, plants. At press time, Green Plains was expected to start construction at its Obion plant in Tennessee next, with plans to roll the technology out to all Green Plains plants by 2024, depending on the permitting process.

In addition, Green Plains announced a joint venture partnership to install MSC at Tharaldson Ethanol, a 175 MMgy ethanol plant in Casselton, North Dakota. Green Plains will provide 50 percent of the capital as well as other services, according to a Green Plains press release. That MSC system is expected to begin operations later in 2022.

Now, with virtually every ethanol plant looking to ramp up corn oil yield or increase the value of the corn oil produced, a lot of corn oil extraction solutions are popping out of the woodwork, Jakel says. It’s crucial that producers carefully evaluate any new technology or equipment so they understand the true return on investment. “Know exactly what it is you’re getting and what value you’re receiving for what you’re purchasing,” he says.

This is why Fluid Quip has a white paper on its website called “Technology Selection Process for Ethanol Facilities,” an effort to help ethanol producers add sophistication into how they select new technologies. It’s so important that companies carefully do their due diligence and evaluate risk, he says.

Coproduct Market Considerations
Another question is how the market will react as more and more corn oil is pulled out at ethanol plants, making lower corn oil distillers grains or other high protein coproducts more common across the industry. Gallop pointed to the pushback that happened back when corn oil extraction technology was first introduced. That subsided when ethanol producers realized corn oil was an important revenue stream and animal feeders realized it didn’t result in much of an energy loss. “It became an industry-accepted practice and I think that will continue to happen as we develop more and more ways to pull the fat out,” he says.

Jakel predicts distillers grains will continue to be whittled away into separate coproduct piles. He believes ethanol plants have to do that in order to get the full value. “The goal at the end of the day would be to get rid of DDGS altogether,” he says. “That would be the best thing that could happen for a biorefinery. Because the DDGS pile when it is separated has much higher value across those products than it does all together.”

Another player in the world of protein animal feed from ethanol coproducts is Novita Nutrition. The company, which began operations at its Aurora, South Dakota, production facility in 2017, brings in distillers grains from ethanol production companies and processes it. The end result is two branded products, NovaMeal, an animal feed product, and NovaOil, a high-quality corn oil for feed and renewable fuels production.

NovaMeal is a highly digestible bypass protein that works well for ruminate animals, such as dairy cows or feedlot cattle, says Don Endres, CEO and cofounder of Novita. It is almost 90 percent rumen undegradable protein, compared to soybean meal, which is less than 40 percent.

After processing incoming distillers grains, NovaMeal is 2.5 to 3 percent fat. Endres sees a lot of variability in the distillers grains the company processes, he says. Over the past year Novita took in DDGS with fat content that ranged from 7 percent to more than 12 percent.

Looking to the future, Endres has his eye on high oil corn varieties. These can have up to 6 to 9 percent fat content and have the potential to produce more oil per acre of corn than an acre of soybeans. “That significantly will improve the economics for growers as well as ethanol producers and potentially Novita’s business as well,” he says.

Author: Holly Jessen
Contact: [email protected]