European Technology Companies Unite

Eight European firms have joined forces to market their technological wares to ethanol producers worldwide. Representatives of four Denmark-based companies held a symposium in Chicago to explain how their cutting-edge technologies reduce ethanol production costs, improve efficiencies and increase coproduct revenue.
By Jessica Ebert | January 01, 2008
Originally established to serve the brewery industry, Distil Alliance, a coalition of equipment suppliers and technology innovators, is making itself known to the ethanol industry. "The Distil Alliance is a mix of various companies that offer groundbreaking core processes and well-proven, reliable technologies," explains Niels Ammundsen, chairman of DA and a mechanical engineer for Union Engineering, a Danish carbon dioxide technology developer. On a recent trip to the United States, DA met individually with leading companies in the ethanol industry including Poet LLC and Fagen Inc., and sponsored a one-day symposium in Chicago. The latter brought these leading European equipment suppliers together with other ethanol producers in an intimate networking setting. The seminar consisted of introductory presentations about DA and its members followed by workshop discussions where the attendees could meet one-on-one with company representatives. EPM was able to participate in these discussions and reports on the innovative technologies offered by DA.

Intriguing Innovation
BioGasol, an engineering and technology company, has developed cellulose-to-ethanol technology that overcomes the major barriers of this process and has many ethanol producers talking. The company was established in January 2006 as a spin-off of a research and development effort at the Technical University of Denmark. Since 1994, this work, led by Birgitte Ahring now chief executive officer of BioGasol, was aimed at developing a process for the coproduction of ethanol biogas (i.e. methane), hydrogen and lignin as a solid fuel. The process utilizes proprietary equipment and patented processes and a unique, heat-loving or thermophilic bacterium isolated 15 years ago from a thermal spring in Iceland. In 2005, a grant from the Danish Energy Department made it possible to create a pilot-scale facility for testing the new technology, which the company has done since 2006. Now, BioGasol has plans to build a demonstration plant on an island called Bornholm near the Swedish coastline.

BioGasol's cellulosic ethanol technology stands out from other processes in three major ways. First, pretreatment of the biomass, which can range from wheat straw to corn stover to bagasse and woody materials, involves a method called wet explosion. "We essentially pressure boil the biomass," explains Rune Skovgaard-Petersen, engineering manager for BioGasol. A little bit of oxygen and pressure released at high temperatures breaks apart the lignin cage that locks away the sugars needed for fermentation. "It's a brute-force method for destroying the biomass structure and separating the cellulose and hemicellulose from the lignin," Skovgaard-Petersen explains. This process differs from the acid-wash that is typically used for pretreatment.

The pretreated biomass is pumped into a reactor for the combined hydrolysis and fermentation of the material. BioGasol uses enzymes from Novozymes for the hydrolysis of the cellulose and hemicellulose into glucose (C6 sugar) and xylose (C5 sugar). The former is simultaneously fermented to ethanol by an industrial yeast, while the latter is funneled to a second reactor. The lignin that remains is separated and sold as a solid fuel pellet.

A second reactor is raising the eyebrows of those ethanol producers looking to the future and to the reality of second-generation plants. In this fluid bed reactor, oxygen is eliminated, the temperature is cranked up to 70 degrees Celsius (158 Fahrenheit) and a novel bacterium converts the xylose to ethanol and hydrogen. "The C5 fermentation unit is getting a lot of attention," Skovgaard-Petersen says. "This is the step that positions BioGasol in the race."

Finally, any remaining organic material is shuttled to a second anaerobic digester and converted into methane. "We call the whole process the carbon slaughterhouse," Skovgaard-Petersen says. "It's become part of our philosophy; get as much energy out of the biomass as possible." In addition, the process water is treated with the company's patented desalination technology and reused. According to Skovgaard-Petersen, only 0.3 gallons of new water is added to produce one gallon of ethanol.

In March 2007, BioGasol was named one of the top-most innovative private companies in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa by Red Herring, a European media company. This past fall, the company signed a joint-development agreement with the food manufacturer Tate & Lyle PLC. The two companies will integrate BioGasol's technology into Tate & Lyle's corn processing facilities for the conversion of corn fiber-to-ethanol.

In the meantime, the company is moving forward with its plans for a demonstration plant on the island of Bornholm. Construction of the 2.6 MMgy facility is expected to begin soon with startup planned for 2009.

Cunning Columns
In a similar attempt to squeeze as much value from coproducts as possible, the technology company Upfront Chromatography has designed a process for extracting high-value protein from raw materials for the production of food additives and ingredients for human consumption and healthcare. "Coproducts improve margins and can become a large part of profits," says Morten Olander, a biotechnology engineer with Upfront. "We've discovered that biofuel waste streams may contain more value on the protein side than the main manufactured product. Our technology adds value to new coproducts."

The process is a separation trademarked solution called Rhobust. It takes place in stainless steel cylinders called columns that are filled with tiny beads that look like grains of sand. Raw material is pumped through the column and proteins bind to the beads, which are then separated and washed. The proteins are finally eluted or removed from the beads and used in downstream processes that result in ingredients for the production of salad dressings, ice cream, powdered soup and skin care products.

The chemistry of the beads can be customized to bind particular proteins, specifically high-value proteins suitable for food ingredient markets. For instance, the column technology has been demonstrated at industrial scale for the separation of potato protein from the fruit juice used by AVEBE, the world's leading potato starch producer. The project is the world's largest industrial protein chromatography installation. It can process more than 26,000 gallons of raw material per day and trap more than 100,000 tons of protein per year. The technology has also been used successfully at a large dairy cooperative in Australia for the processing of cheese whey and the separation of proteins for food and healthcare.

Now the company is in talks with corn processors and ethanol producers to explore the possibility of breaking into these industries. One person who attended the symposium, a science and technical manager for a West Coast ethanol producer said her company was keen to explore this chromatography solution. "Margins are very tight at the moment so we're looking for something that will get straight to the bottom line," she said.

Old Favorites
The two remaining members of DA who made the trip across the pond are veterans of the ethanol industry. Grundfos, a leading pump manufacturer and developer, is already a familiar name in many ethanol plants. The name is synonymous with high-efficiency pumps and according to Henrik Skov Laursen, a regional segment manager for the company, "the more efficient the pumps are the more efficient the overall process is." Although Grundfos pumps are typically used to move water and ethanol around a plant, in 2008, the company will be bringing a solids-handling pump to the U.S. market. "We've always been on the water side but now we're growing the business and [research and development] on the process side," Laursen says. In fact, all the pumps at BioGasol's demonstration plant will be of the Grundfos variety. In addition, the company has introduced a new metering pump, which they showcased at last year's International Fuel Ethanol Workshop and Trade Show. This pump can be used for enzyme dosing and is an area that Grundfos is focusing on.

Finally, Union Engineering, a company with more than 70 years experience in the design and construction of carbon dioxide recovery plants, is gearing up to service new ethanol plants, especially those being built on the coasts. For instance, the company built the carbon dioxide recovery facility at the Northeast Biofuels plant in New York. Coastal plants like this one are relatively close to the major consumers of carbon dioxide, including the food and beverage industries and companies that produce dry ice, therefore transportation costs are lower.

Jessica Ebert is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.