Planning, Communication Underlie Successful Plant Trials

How one ethanol producer is adopting new technology to weather adverse industry conditions.
By Tami Fraser | July 11, 2013

Innovative.  Creative.  Adaptive.  These are all words that describe the management and staff of Pine Lake Corn Processors LP. These words also underpin PLCP’s business strategy, especially in today’s challenging industry conditions when margins are extremely tight. Pine Lake Corn Processors is a 30 MMgy Delta-T style plant located along U.S. Hwy 20 by Steamboat Rock, Iowa, which began production in 2005. Like many ethanol plants, PLCP has had its share of challenges along the way, which have enforced the belief of CEO James Broghammer that the continuous adoption of new technology is imperative for improving a plant’s bottom line.

When times are good in the ethanol industry, plants focus on throughput, trying to produce as many gallons as possible. When times get tough, plants need to focus on becoming more optimized and efficient. Most plants are afraid to try new technologies and products at the best of times, let alone when margins are tight. This however, according to Broghammer, is exactly the time when plants should consider testing and implementing new technology. “If you are not implementing improvements, you are being passed by plants that are.” By trying out and implementing new technologies, PLCP has consistently improved its core business.

PLCP’s commitment to trying new technologies led them to analyze their alpha amylase enzyme usage. This was one input that the management team believed could be improved upon. The team wanted a different solution to their alpha amylase needs to address some viscosity issues that were unique to PLCP. Viscosity was higher than they wanted it to be and they knew they needed to be more cost efficient with their alpha amylase. Another reason they looked at their enzyme usage, Wendy Clikeman, lab manger, explained, is that “enzymes are one of the process inputs that we can directly control and monitor, and Verenium staff had a very quick and efficient way to measure viscosity so PLCP could easily see how effective the current alpha amylase dosage was.”

With this in mind, PLCP turned to Verenium Corp. to trial its unique high-temperature, low-pH Fuelzyme alpha amylase.

Trials often make any plant personnel nervous, especially when it comes to trialing something completely novel. Over the years, Verenium has worked hard to ensure that the trial process runs smoothly and minimizes the risk to plants. 

Verenium’s trial process starts several weeks before the actual trial itself. Tony Newton, technical support manager, reaches out to the plant personnel directly involved in the trial. In PLCP’s case, it was Clikeman, lab manager, and Ed Kryfka, production manager. Newton began by asking PLCP for a comprehensive overview of how the plant operates to get an accurate picture of the conditions under which the enzyme has to perform. This includes several weeks’ worth of fermentation data to be used to create a baseline for comparisons with future trial fermentations.

Communication between PLCP and the Verenium staff is also a critical component of trialing. Reporting and timing framework is established so expectations and priorities are made clear for both parties. The Verenium representatives work very closely with plant staff to ensure a smooth transition to the new alpha amylase, remaining on hand to help adjust to any new parameters and conditions that the enzyme requires, in this case, a lower pH and lower dextrose equivalent numbers.

Newer technologies are easier to adopt when strong support is given from the vendor. Verenium has a vested interest in PLCP’s success not only with its enzyme usage but overall.

“When looking at trialing or implementing a new technology, a strong trial process and a showing of supportive data from similar plant circumstances is key in getting plants more comfortable with the change,” Broghammer said. “With Verenium’s Fuelzyme alpha amylase, PLCP has been able to significantly reduce the costs to a more acceptable level. We also saw several other additional benefits including the ability to operate our classified strainers which are strainers unique to a Delta-T style of plant, at a much more manageable level.”

These cost savings and benefits all contribute to a plant’s bottom line. When margins are tight, plants have to be willing to expand their comfort zone and try new things in order to improve process economics and stay relevant. Plants looking to reduce risks while trialing new enzyme technology should make sure the company they are looking at trialing with has data available to demonstrate long-term benefits to the plant, and preferably under similar plant conditions. Plants trialing new enzyme technology can feel confident in their partnering choice through customer testimonials. Plants should also have the assurance from the vendor that they are prepared, willing and able to have staff on site to work closely with plant personnel both during and after the trialing process.

PLCP’s willingness to test new technology and innovate alongside Verenium’s strong customer support and process enhancing expertise has proven to be a good arrangement. It has allowed PLCP operators to advance their processes and increase their profits despite the challenges faced in the corn ethanol industry today.

Author: Tami Fraser
Technical Sales Representative, Verenium Corp.

The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ethanol Producer Magazine or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s).