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Technical Conference Highlights Advancements in Ethanol
by Chuck Beck

More than one hundred of those on the cutting edge of the U.S. ethanol industry gathered recently for a Commercial Ethanol Technology and Research Workshop, discussing the latest in industry advancements. The group’s optimism toward the future of ethanol was apparent in the presentations which covered process improvements and next-generation technologies.

The event was hosted October 28-29 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota by BioFuels Journal, a trade publication headquartered in Decatur, Illinois. BFJ publisher and event organizer Myke Feinman was pleased with the outcome.

“We are very pleased with how the conference went,” Feinman said. “We had a nice crowd as well and we even doubled last year’s attendance by getting 110 attendees total.”

Brian Jennings, Executive Vice President of the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), was invited to give a state of the industry address to kick off the event. Jennings touched on some of the hurdles facing ethanol on Capitol Hill, and the frustration of some policy and regulatory decisions seeming to be influenced by ethanol critics instead of by science. Case in point – Tim Searchinger, architect of the “indirect land use change” theory against biofuels being named to the EPA’s peer review committee on that topic. Searchinger is not a scientist, but a lawyer whose career has been spent working against farmers.

“This is not a gentleman who is a scientist or agronomist or economist, or even someone who has taken the time to really painfully study indirect land use and its implications,” Jennings said. “What he is portraying is not accurate and it’s not validated by the measurements. He’s a very dangerous man because he’s got the ear of a lot of the mainstream media, and he served on the EPA peer review to essentially validate his own ideas, so we have our work cut out for us.”

Jennings emphasized the importance of ethanol advocates speaking out, especially to their Members of Congress who can work on these issues in DC. Also, the power of speaking out in your own community cannot be underestimated. Whether at the coffee shop, a basketball game, or at the grocery store, don’t hesitate to speak up if you hear ethanol misinformation.

The technical portion of the workshop got underway with a look at some key new technologies that will play a crucial role in the industry as it moves forward. The anaerobic digestion of thin stillage to create biogas was discussed by Dr. Patrick Hirl of Stanley Consultants. David Winsness of Greenshift presented on corn oil extraction and back-end fractionation, processes which can cut energy usage while improving production yields. New fractionation technologies mean ethanol producers can now get more of the extracted product than ever before.

Fractionation was a popular topic at the event, discussed by four different companies. According to panel moderator John Caupert from the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center, fractionation is the most talked-about technology in the corn ethanol industry today. He believes that, as the economy improves, more ethanol producers will adopt fractionation processes.

Brian Williams of Buhler told attendees that fractionation helps ethanol producers by giving them logical solutions to issues facing the ethanol industry such as volatile corn prices, limited distillers grain compatibility for swine and poultry, and the “food and fuel” debate.

Reg Ankrom with Cereal Process Technologies emphasized the gains that can be achieved through this technology, stating that precision milling can yield 20 percent more ethanol.

Fractionation improves operating margins, helps yield higher margins, and is a natural hedge to corn, according to Neal Jakel of Delta-T. Some of the key questions producers should ask when looking at adding fractionation to their facility include the kind of performance the system would offer, who is offering the technology or system, and which feed products are optimal to produce.

Leon Langhauser with Lai-Pro concluded the panel by emphasizing how efficient fractionation technology is for producers.

Jeff Broin, CEO of ethanol producer POET, was on hand to give a keynote address on the evening on day one of the workshop. He updated attendees on the company’s progress in its cellulosic ethanol development and discussed what a big advantage the improvement in corn yields gives the ethanol industry.

“Corn yields today are literally three times what they were 50 to 60 years ago, so we have tripled corn yields in less than 60 years,” Broin said. “So what’s going to happen in the future? You’ll see 300 bushel corn 20 years from today.”

Day two of the conference focused on cellulosic ethanol and biomass feedstock sources. Jeff Scharping of ICM, Inc. discussed Total Kernel Optimization, which allows ethanol producers to get at more components of the corn kernel and to produce more products and operate at a higher efficiency.

Converting the corn’s bran to steam, for example, can create a syngas that replaces 40 percent of a plant’s natural gas usage. With this technology, ICM offers a 10,000 Btu/gallon guarantee for a plant drying DDGS. He noted that ICM can help a facility with modeling – looking at the entire chain from corn farming practices to shipping the corn, to processing it – to help determine the ethanol’s carbon footprint. All this is important now with the national conversations about land use change, CO2, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Scharping said that he’s excited “cellulose is here,” stating that advancements are good for the entire industry.

A panel on biomass logistics covered the methods of collecting, harvesting, and handling next-generation feedstocks.

Stuart Birrell of Iowa State University discussed three key components: harvest technologies, transportation and storage, and producer acceptance. What is the capacity of the machine (the combine)? What are the seasonal labor requirements? Will the biomass be collected in a wet (silage) or dry (hay) model? A single-pass or multi-pass operation? Will the farmers accept the new practices? A large percentage of adoption will be necessary, according to Birrell.

Iowa State is working through these questions and creating harvesting techniques and equipment that it hopes will be the most feasible for the farmers and biofuel producers alike.

Mike Schuster of Laidig Industries gave a “biomass 101” overview, emphasizing that the characteristics of biomass make it much more difficult to handle than grain, and therefore specialized equipment and handling procedures will be required. Materials like corn cobs, stover, wood chips, and municipal waste are fibrous and inconsistent, and are now flowable like grain.

The form and method of receiving biomass at a biofuels production facility is important, as is the sizing of the particles. Schuster emphasized that the facility needs to take control of its optimal particle size and should not assume that the biomass will always be delivered to the exact specifications of size, moisture, or cleanliness. Storage is also a consideration by the end-user, whether it should be automated or manual.

Schuster encouraged biofuels producers looking at biomass to recognize and address the unique handling characteristics of the material, take responsibility for the size and quality of the material, and consider automated, on-demand storage for more process flexibility.

Dr. Mark Stowers of POET concluded the day’s speakers with an update on Project LIBERTY, the addition of cellulosic ethanol production at the company’s existing corn ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Stowers noted that there are 100 different collaborators involved in the project.

POET’s primary focus is corn cobs, which comprise 12 to 25 percent of the above-ground weight of the stalk and provide 16 percent more carbohydrates than the stover alone. They hope to take the stover off the bank end of the combine through a towable solution that separates the stover and the cobs on-the-go. During 2009 they have targeted 25,000 acres across South Dakota and Iowa to test four different methods for collecting the cobs.

POET will need 770 bone dry tons (BDT) per day to supply the ethanol plant. In 2012, this will mean 315,000 acres and 252,000 tons of cobs collected.

Presentations from the conference can be viewed online at www.biofuelsjournal.com.

 
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The American Coalition for Ethanol publishes Ethanol Today magazine each month to cover the biofuels industryís hot topics, including cellulosic ethanol, E85, corn ethanol, food versus fuel, ethanolís carbon footprint, E10, E15, and mid-range ethanol blends.
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