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The Blueprint for the Renewable Biorefinery
by Jonathan Eisenthal

One of the most troubling trends of our times is the outsourcing of both energy and chemical production – two industries that made America an economic powerhouse in the 20th century, according to Dr. Mark Stowers, vice president of research and development for POET Energy. The emerging reality of the biorefinery could fuel a new renaissance in these industries on American soil.

The chemical industry, much of it based today in petrochemical processing, generates $1.4 trillion in annual economic activity worldwide. It's a prize worth competing for.

Stowers and others on the cutting edge of ethanol research believe the renewable biorefinery can bring these industries back to our shores. They see corn-to-ethanol as the pathway to cellulose-to-energy – one that will strengthen, rather than diminish, the ongoing importance of corn-based ethanol. Without changing feedstocks, they believe industry will eventually source a whole host of products and materials from farm-based and biomass-based biorefineries in rural America.

Anything that now comes from hydrocarbons can come from carbohydrates. By processing the cellulose in the corn kernel, they may blaze a commercially viable pathway to other sources of plant-based energy, but corn will continue to be a significant component, they believe.

And this isn’t some dream of a big rock candy mountain. Take a vertical slice through the ethanol industry and find that everyone – from small entrepreneurial outfits like GrainValue LLC in West Saint Paul, to successful one-off farmer-owned plants like Benson, Minnesota’s Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co., to the giants like South Dakota-based POET and ICM, Inc. of Colwich, Kansas – has years of research under their belt and is within an estimated three years of commercial launch. Some may be ready far sooner.

“Clearly, more research and development is going to be needed for biorefineries to move rapidly into the chemical space,” Stowers said. “Just as oil production has moved offshore, increasingly, so has chemical production. We are likely to see the chemical production growing among those same OPEC countries where we get so much of our oil. We should all be very concerned about that, given that we can produce all these chemicals domestically, with renewable resources.”

POET, a group of 23 ethanol plants and counting, produces more than 1.3 billion gallons of ethanol per year. According to Stowers, the company will be adding a front-end separation technology to most of their plants, called Bfrac ™, which will separate the corn into bran, germ, and endosperm. He points out that separating the corn into its constituent parts brings a whole range of products within reach, but then the situation of each plant will be weighed in terms of availability of feedstock materials and in terms of where the markets are for each individual product.

The focus for POET’s cellulosic research, dubbed Project Liberty, is a conventional ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa where they will construct fractionation process technology and have a commercial-scale cellulose ethanol plant online by 2011, according to Stowers.

Both POET and ICM have won major U.S. Department of Energy grants to carry forward research and bring cellulose-based ethanol production facilities online.

Corn oil derived from the kernel’s germ has a huge potential as a new source of products for the coming biorefineries, Stowers said. In conventional ethanol processing, that germ, with its oil, makes up part of the distillers grain. But by separating it out before processing the starch into ethanol, the ethanol industry enters new territory where it can market the oil as a separate higher-value product, or continue to further refine that oil into still more products.

“From corn oil there are a number of specialty chemicals we can produce that have important food and industrial uses,” Stowers said. “One example is Tocopherols. There are anti-oxidant properties in those molecules. Another constituent of corn oil is Ferulates, which can be used to make compounds like vanilla or a whole host of aromatic chemicals. Ferulates could replace benzene as a safer and higher-value chemical product.”

ICM has developed a similar technology that they call dry fractionation, which they are offering to existing ethanol plants and new projects as part of a total package that, in turnkey manner, hands over a biorefinery that multiplies the number of co-products.

Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. now separates oil, with a potential to use it in biodiesel, as does VeraSun Energy’s Aurora, South Dakota ethanol facility.

Start-up company GrainValue LLC of West Saint Paul, Minnesota claims that its new-generation process actually renders proteins that could not be captured and marketed through the conventional ethanol process, and that these could prove to be valuable resources to swine, poultry, and fish farming industries.

Fractionation means food and fuel, and feed, and industrial products

ICM founder and primary owner Dave Vander Griend was traveling in the developing world on a mission trip when he encountered first-hand the stark dimensions of the world’s food shortage.

“It’s not a shortage of food per se, it’s a shortage of protein. When Dave saw how much the world hungers for more protein, that’s when he decided that ICM should develop products for human food that can come out of our ethanol process, thanks to dry fractionation,” said Doug Rivers, Ph.D., director of research and development for the Colwich, Kansas-based ICM.

The company, a leading ethanol plant designer and provider of process technology to the ethanol industry, began its quest in 2002 to create a front-end process to separate corn into its components: germ, endosperm, and fiber.

“We are talking about the ethanol biorefinery of the future... and very near future at that,” said Vander Griend, when he announced at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop that ethanol companies who signed on now to get ICM’s proprietary new “bolt-on” fractionation process would be turning out both food and fuel by 2010 – not to mention deriving a source of biomass that can for now be used in a gasifier to power the plant, and in the future as a feedstock for cellulose-based ethanol processing.

Vander Griend said, “ Fifty years ago, the U.S. fed the world. We will be able to do that again with a food supply brought about by the evolution of ethanol production.”

Dry fractionation mechanically separates the corn into its three main components: endosperm is the starchy substance found at the center of the kernel; the germ, where proteins and oils are found in abundance; and bran, which is the cellulose-based outer layer of the kernel.

“This separation allows us to optimize the ethanol process and get at the whole kernel in a way that allows for the production of a host of food-grade and feed-grade co-products, as well as another alternate fuel source to power the process,” Rivers said.

ICM’s biorefinery has six components, dry fractionation being the first. The other process technologies are: Solid Fuel Combustion system, Germ-oil Extraction process, Protein Extraction from Germ process, High-value Single-cell Protein Feed from Syrup cultivation, and Ethanol from Fiber process.

A complete, pilot-scale biorefinery system is under construction and will come online very shortly at the LifeLine Foods Plant in St. Joseph, Missouri. They expect the starch line to be complete this fall and the cellulose line by the end of the year.

ICM launched its unique partnership several years ago with Agramarke, the owner of LifeLine Foods. Agramarke took over the Quaker Foods plant in St. Joseph and was milling corn to produce animal feed components and corn grits, an ingredient in human snack food. Company officials estimate that previous to the ethanol operation, 70 percent of LifeLine’s revenue came from its snack food ingredient product and the remaining 30 percent came from animal feed.

Agramark invited ICM to design an ethanol plant in order to make the operation even more profitable, and the invitation was perfectly timed because ICM had just begun looking for a way into production of human food. Now ethanol and its co-products make up 70 percent of the company revenue and 30 percent from human food products. Rivers notes that the 30 percent is actually more than when the human food products made up two-thirds of the company’s revenues, due to the compatibility and the synergy of pairing ethanol and food production.

Rivers sees it as fortuitous that ICM is ready to roll out its dry fractionation technology at a time when the call for both protein and alternative energy is booming – this will bring another significant bump to the profitability of the food and energy production facility.

“Dry fractionation definitely adds additional value to the plant owner,” Rivers said. “There are some big gains. We are currently guaranteeing that a plant will require a maximum of 34,000 BTUs of energy input per gallon of ethanol produced. We are going to move that guarantee down to 10,000 BTUs required to make a gallon. And that’s conservative. One of our traditional 110 mgy plants would be able to put out 130 mgy – a 17 percent increase.”

And nothing additional is being delivered to the plant. Simply by separating all the extraneous components from the starch so that 100 percent of the material going into the fermenter can be fermented, and then being able to process the cellulose component of the corn kernel in a separate process, will render that significant increase in production.

Though Rivers thinks there may be an advantage to arriving among the first companies that produce cellulose-based ethanol, he foresees a market with the potential for near limitless growth, seeing the gasoline market as limited both by the size of reserves and environmental concerns.

“I want to emphasize how big the potential for this market is, with plenty of room for the whole existing ethanol industry to get involved. A Texas A&M study released last week shows that ethanol has kept the cost of gasoline down by 15 percent, thanks to increasing total supply – so we can definitely use more, and the more we produce the more of the market we can capture,” Rivers said.

ICM anticipates reduced natural gas consumption, according to Rivers. Dry fractionation can save millions of dollars in natural gas expense by taking the bran fiber and feeding it into a gasifier system that powers the plant. Another big part of the natural gas expense comes from drying the DDGS, left over after fermentation, to make it useable as animal feed.

“ Removing the solids handled by the system reduces the dryer load by 50 percent, and using the bran and syrup as a fuel via combustion eliminates approximately 80 percent of the entire biorefinery’s natural gas usage ,” Rivers said. “This reduction also lowers the biorefinery’s CO2 footprint. The absence of non-fermentable materials makes the cook and liquefaction process more efficient, resulting in increased enzymatic activity and a 20 to 25 percent reduction in enzyme usage.”

Scale appropriate diversification

Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. (CVEC) has pursued a diverse product line from very early on, said General Manager Bill Lee, including its wheat vodka product aimed at the connoisseur, Shaker’s Vodka. This year they are teaming with Phillips, a Minnesota bottler with five generations experience distilling fine spirits, to create Prairie Organic Vodka, a high-end brand that will carry both organic and Kosher certifications.

Since 1994, CVEC has taken many process and marketing risks, most of which have paid off, according to Lee – success with food-grade and industrial alcohol in 1998 and 1999 were increments that led to the creation of the Shakers brand, starting in 2003.

But being a one-off 47 million gallon per year (mgy) farmer-owned plant imposes certain limits.

“The challenge for us – think of petroleum refineries as analogous to what we are doing, and all the diverse set of products they get out of that barrel of oil,” Lee said. “But the oil refineries tend to be much larger than the typical ethanol plant. It is a challenge to be diverse and small. As we look at ways of diversifying, we have to do that in a way that is scale appropriate .”

Like the much larger ethanol companies and service industries, CVEC has pursued oil separation as a lucrative process. But its centrifugal system, attached to the back end of the plant and used on the corn stillage rather than the raw corn, required a more modest investment than the kind of milling equipment and processing lines in the fractionation systems under development at POET and ICM. Though the oil that results from CVEC’s process is not human food grade, it currently has a very strong market for the animal feed and as a biodiesel input.

“The way we have [diversified here] is to take incremental steps away from our core competencies,” Lee said. “It’s a relatively small step from transportation ethanol to industrial ethanol, and another small step beyond that to beverage alcohol – we got there through incremental steps. It’s not to say there weren’t barriers, but it was something we could manage. And when we have looked at ways to do something different, we have always preferred approaches that had more than one potential outcome.”

Another case in point: CVEC has built a biomass gasifier, in which it will try out corncobs collected during this fall’s harvest. A $150,000 grant from the state of Minnesota helped them develop newly devised collectors that attach right to the combine.

The gasifier system is already up and running. They flipped the switch on April 9 on the system currently using woodchips. Immediately, the plant saw a 15 percent reduction in its consumption of natural gas. Eventually, CVEC believes the gasifier will displace up to 90 percent of the natural gas usage. Biomass costs less than half of what natural gas costs – the woodchips are $5 per decatherm compared to $13 per decatherm for natural gas – and biomass will likely prove far less volatile in price. The collection systems will lead naturally to additional uses for biomass, Lee said.

The trend toward energy input innovations is part of the larger trend, ongoing for some time, to use less energy to produce ethanol. Lee refutes the notion that ethanol has ever been a net loser of BTUs, and points to a Department of Energy study that found the industry reduced energy inputs by 22 percent in the six years between 2001 and 2006.

Lee called the gasifier “a learning investment as well as a capital investment” because they are learning how to build and operate the gasifier, which will become a key component of the future plant, whether they decide to process biomass into a syn-gas or thermally convert it into ethanol or some other product. Frontline Bioenergy from Ames, Iowa has helped CVEC build and optimize the gasifier.

Lee feels confident that a lot of talent will be available to help CVEC continue to develop state-of-the-art systems – Frontline Energy has just reached an agreement and Fagen, Inc. has issued a letter of intent, stating that Fagen will be the exclusive builder of Frontline’s biomass gasifiers.

“ One of the ways we have continuously created benefits for our shareholders is to pursue these ideas that are not completely proven ,” Lee said. “We have a long track record of making some good strategic decisions, and most of the things [CVEC has] gotten involved with have turned out to be worthwhile. We don't consider status quo as a viable strategic plan .”

Entrepreneurs seek to roll out the “next generation” in ethanol processing

Dubbed a “next generation” process by company owners Dan Karl and Ron Anderson, Grain Value LLC in West Saint Paul, Minnesota has patented two parts of a process that is neither dry milling nor wet milling, but uses an innovative semi-wet separation process to create corn oil and high protein feed products – corn gluten meal and feed yeast.

Karl said, “ Our selling point for secondary yeast is that we are bringing additional protein biomass into the economic picture, which is not being done by any of the other fractionation processes . Everyone else is just putting the same protein into different pockets. Compared to DDGs, both yeast and corn meal gluten are more suitable for monogastrics (swine and poultry) because of the lower fiber content. The protein products are also suitable for bypass product for dairy feed.”

These products, according to Karl and Anderson’s estimates, significantly increase the revenue compared to conventional production of distillers grain with solubles.

“We envision licensing this technology to new and existing ethanol plant projects, which could retrofit this process right into the front end of their plants,” Anderson said.

The process renders feed products with the same protein level of soybean meal – around 60 percent protein – without the sulfur dioxide, making the product more palatable to a wider range of animals.

“We’re aiming at the monogastrics (swine and poultry), and aquaculture could also be a big market,” Karl said. “Fish and crustaceans need high protein diets, and they don’t tolerate polysaccharides, so the feed yeast could be an ideal food source for them. It’s not water soluble, so it won’t simply wash away.”

The company has located its pilot facility at an industrial park in West Saint Paul. The operation removes the corn pericarp or bran, separates the germ from the starch, and hydrolyzes the starch. The germ can then be processed for oil – that is the only part of the process not yet up and running at the pilot facility, but the two entrepreneurs expect to bring it on line soon. Karl said they would have the process ready for full commercial application within three years if not sooner. The USDA has awarded GrainValue with a $2 million grant, and the company also has ongoing support from the ethanol industry pioneers on the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

GrainValue may have the edge in the environmental footprint of its technology. As designed, the process emits no water, only water vapor, which could put GrainValue’s fractionation at the head of the competition to minimize the environmental impacts of ethanol production, Karl and Anderson believe. They hope to soon begin feeding trials to prove the value of these products.

Food grade oil is one of the hottest products on the world market right now, with literally millions of people in China, India, and other parts of the developing world adding protein to their diets and incorporating foods cooked in oil.

Ethanol will continue to be the basis for bioproducts

POET’s Stowers believes that the ethanol industry will be the basis for going forward and transforming the industrial base from petroleum-based products to green, renewable, bio-based products.

“The vision that there is not enough biomass, or ethanol – that is another urban myth that needs to be dispelled,” Stowers said. “A slide I showed at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop illustrated the fact that, with improved corn yields and input programs, corn could easily provide 50 billion gallons of ethanol in 2030 using the same amount of farmland as today . And cellulose can go even further, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.S. industry could collect a billion tons of biomass per year, and conservatively, that would produce 85 billion gallons of fuel. Together that’s 135 billion gallons – our current gasoline use is 140 billion gallons per year.”

This would be 15 times the size of the current industry, with U.S. production this year estimated at 9 billion gallons of ethanol from about 3 billion bushels of grain.

“The business model has not quite been developed,” Stowers added. “There are all kinds of possibilities. The chemical industry alone is $1.4 trillion dollar industry – having partners and looking at creative business models is going to be required.”

© American Coalition for Ethanol, all rights reserved.
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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