Elevating Quality Control

When lab personnel aren’t ushering in new innovations, testing ethanol fermentations and producing real-time production data for their colleagues, they’re making sure what’s arriving at the gate is fit for today’s production needs.
By Luke Geiver | September 17, 2022

In a world creating, consuming and craving more and more data, ethanol plant labs are right at home. Equipped with a steady supply of both powerful new tech and the time-tested standby instruments that have been getting the job done for years, today’s lab managers are expected to do both react to what’s occurring in the moment and predict what’s coming next.

Ethanol Producer Magazine spoke with industry veterans and lab experts about the role of the modern lab and how managers navigate perennial issues (like mycotoxins in incoming corn) while their teams also work to stay ahead of the everyday that keeps plants running optimally (like testing for quality across the entire supply chain).  

Innovation In the Lab Setting
Don Cannon has proven his ability as an innovator in the analytical chemistry space by achieving success in the private sector, through his work standing up public labs, and now as the research and development director for the cutting-edge team at Green Plains Inc. Cannon is currently helping usher in a new era inside a jointly run, collaborative space in Omaha, Nebraska, connecting the expertise and needs of Green Plains with the industry knowhow and technology or testing insight of its subsidiary, Fluid Quip Technologies. All of that happens at one site.

Keith Jakel, director of sales and marketing for FQT, believes like Cannon does. “There is a great story of innovation with what we are doing in Omaha,” he says. “We have such a large base of knowledge between the two companies. Chances are we have an expert in the field for any question that arises.”

The Omaha Center for Innovation lab provides a glimpse at what a centralized, all-capable lab can look like, Cannon says. The team there uses the most modern equipment possible while running strategic tests in conjunction with other tests that are now a requirement. With Green Plains focusing on the production of sustainable, biobased ingredients for feed, fuel and the massive bioproducts industries, more testing is required than ever before.

“I think the increase from the food market that the feed products are going into has created a fundamental shift in how we run the lab,” Cannon says. “We are looking at putting quality management systems in place now. Throughout the production process, but also in the lab.”
Jakel says the standards on some feed ingredients are very high. The end user is also looking for a sound testing protocol all the way through. “We need to demonstrate for them how the products test all the way through the supply chain,” he explains.

Similar to most lab professionals across the biobased products and biofuels industry, Cannon is embracing and adapting to the new necessities required of his profession. Modern labs across the renewable energy or biobased sectors are changing, he says. New tests, new tech and new ways of thinking about the true function of the lab itself are the new norm. Although most labs might appear to function as they always have, the modern lab has changed. Production is not the only area a lab needs to focus on, especially those at facilities producing multiple product streams to various markets. Quality control and assurance is now critical, as is the ability to validate claims from outside parties (through on-site testing) about bolt-on tech or upgrades.

“Labs aren’t just testing to aid production anymore,” Cannon says. “The best labs and facilities are now implementing quality control and quality assurance experts for inputs and outputs.”
To maintain the rigorous testing protocol required of more products in multiple markets, Jakel and Cannon say they have had to ensure their testing is consistent.

“Something as simple as the way you prepare samples in a lab is huge. That consistency across the board is the key to the higher margins in every department. That is what we looked at with this lab,” he says.

Jakel also says the role of testing today isn’t just about what is going out, but also about how well new or existing plant set-ups are running. “Our technologies rely on sampling and lab processing to ensure that they are operating at peak efficiency.”

On most days, the team samples every two hours to make sure they are adjusting to anomalies. “Doing testing allows us to make adjustments on the fly,” Jakel explains.

Through his work in the ethanol industry and other sectors, Cannon says he has learned that a lab shouldn’t only focus on testing. He is a proponent of running tests only if they have meaning. He works with his team in the lab and any plant he is affiliated with to ensure the data gleaned from each test is meaningful. Cannon values the consistency of testing protocols over the number of tests ran, he says. He also tries to remind others that sometimes the results are less important than the direction of a trend in testing. Sometimes a lab-scale test will not mimic the same numerical correlations that larger systems yield. But, he explains, what direction is a test moving? If the numbers move in the desired direction, he is less likely to discount the effectiveness of the larger system.

“There are things that I have been very excited about in the lab,” he says. “Then, you go to reproduce it at scale and it doesn’t always work. That is why a good lab has the ability to understand why tech can’t scale based on lab tests.”

Modern labs also serve a purpose unrelated to current operations, Jakel and Cannon both agree. “The ability to give operations meaningful data is the number one priority of an industrial lab,” Cannon says.

Sometimes that means providing data—or evidence—that an outside vendor’s claims on new bolt-on tech or upgrades ring true.
“Every plant runs so unique now,” Jakel says, “that you have to be able to create these baselines for your own operation.”

FQT has developed several lab simulations for its technology to be able to show what its tech can do with certain stillage. The simulations help to show how much corn oil uplift a plant might get from a FQT technology adoption.

“It is important that a plant can look at an investment before they ever spend a dime,” Jakel says. “Information gained from tests allows us to make good decisions.”

Dealing with Today
While ethanol plant lab technology, standards and strategy have changed, the corn quality issues they test for have not. For example, mycotoxins, a family of toxins produced by mold that grow on almost all vegetation and grain, are a recurrent concern. These toxins are harmful to the humans and animals that consume the feed products made from these crops, which is why they need to be monitored at ethanol plants producing distillers grains, says Lauren Kellen, lab manager for CHS Inc.
“Certain conditions such as extreme drought, extreme humidity and excess rain can cause a sudden surge of toxin levels in the crops,” Kellen says. “The drought that much of the Prairie lands have seen this summer will likely result in elevated aflatoxin values come harvest.”

Several surveys indicate the current state of mycotoxins every year. The surveys collect information during the fall, before releasing updates starting in February. DSM’s July release of its own mycotoxin survey showed that of the 48 corn DDGS samples tested, surveillance suggested that mycotoxin occurrence was somewhat increased compared to 2020, with the greatest shifts in Zearalenone (6% above normal). Only samples sent in were tested. Samples showing clinical signs of toxin impact were not included in the survey testing. DSM has been running the survey since 2014 and analyzed thousands of agricultural samples from around the world.

Dealing with toxins in corn isn’t new to Kellen, but the issue does showcase the importance of a well-run lab. Kellen says being vigilant about mycotoxins is simply part of ethanol production. “We’ve all seen rises and ebbs in mycotoxin levels,” she says. 

Through past experience, Kellen’s team has developed a successful monitoring process for mycotoxins. “We have plans in place to quickly address high levels if brought into the plant. We feel confident in our instrumentation, and our validation methods.”

This year, the majority of the crop space in the Midwest has experienced record droughts in addition to extreme heat. Certain mycotoxins thrive in these conditions, and many plants purchasing from these areas will likely have to deal with the toxins until next year.

To stay on top of the issue, Kellen’s team tests incoming and outgoing products to constantly monitor mycotoxin values. The combination of in-house testing methods as well as third-party verification allows them to monitor the toxin load coming in or going out. During harvest, they increase testing.

Although the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration have laid out limits for each toxin depending on the market a product is going into (swine, cattle, etc.), Kellen’s team has created their own limits in the lab they use to flag any product getting close to USDA or FDA thresholds.

This year specifically, Kellen says lab managers should be prepared for increased testing and associated costs, and be thinking about a proactive approach rather than a reactive approach. “Testing the samples can be time-consuming,” she says, “so it’s good to plan ahead with lab personnel to know that you will have manpower to get the job done.”

Kellen believes it is important to understand that “while we cannot change climate conditions for the crops in our areas, we can do a good job monitoring and turning away highly flagged products. This cannot be done without the support of a highly [capable] lab team to be able to efficiently test and monitor the data associated with toxins,” she says. “Having a highly educated team makes the monitoring process smooth.”

Author: Luke Geiver
Contact: [email protected]