Small Companies, Big Ideas

Lightly staffed businesses are often nimble and innovative. Here are seven to size up at this year’s International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo.
By Tom Bryan | April 09, 2015

1. Xylome:
Today's Yeast For Tomorrow's Ethanol
TITLE: “Novel Yeasts For Cellulosic Ethanol Production”
SPEAKER: Thomas Jeffries, president
WHEN: 8:30 am, Wednesday, June 3 – Track 4

Xylome President Thomas Jeffries says existing, natural yeasts are capable of unlocking the hard-to-get sugars in cellulosic and hemicellulosic feedstocks, and they could move corn ethanol producers closer to next-generation biorefining. He will join an FEW panel titled “Starch Ethanol’s Cellulosic Sequel Also Begins With Biology.”
Jeffries will talk about how converting spent corn hulls from distillers wet grains (DWG) could increase ethanol production by as much as 10 percent per bushel of corn. He will introduce FEW attendees to the yeasts that make corn fiber conversion possible. “Our focus is on alternative yeasts for unconventional substrates,” he says. “We focus on substrates that can’t be consumed by saccharomyces.” 

Xylome works with both non-GMO and GMO yeasts. The non-GMO strains the company starts out with, such as Spathaspora passalidarum, are capable of producing ethanol and other liquid chemicals from cellulosic and hemicellulosic sugars. “A lot of people aren’t aware that there are native yeasts out there that will handle semicellulosic sugars like this,” Jeffries says. 

HOW IT WORKS: Traditional yeast such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae cannot ferment the five-carbon sugars that are abundant in spent grain hulls, but yeasts like Spathaspora passalidarum can. Each ton of DWG contains approximately 200 pounds of cellulosic and hemicellulosic sugar that can be converted into about 13 gallons of ethanol.

2. Ener-Core:
Self-Paying Clean Power
PRESENTATION: “Reusing Process Waste Gases As A Source Of Energy To Reduce Costs, Improve Profitability And Establish A New Environmental Standard For Ethanol Production”
SPEAKER: Alain Castro, CEO
WHEN: 8:30 am, Wednesday, June 3 – Track 1

When Pacific Ethanol announced in January that it had signed an agreement with Dresser-Rand to install a 3.5 megawatt cogeneration system at its Stockton, California, ethanol plant, the payback was implicit. The $12 million system, due for completion next year, will convert the plant’s waste gases into electricity and steam, lowering its annual energy spend by up to $4 million a year.

It will allow PEI to use poor-quality gases laden with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as an energy feedstock. The enabler behind this innovative clean energy play is the Power Oxidizer engineered by Ener-Core. Alain Castro, company CEO, will present at this year’s FEW, joining a panel titled “Wonderful Widgets: Technologies Available For Plants Looking To Drive Out Process Expenses And Increase Profits.” Castro calls the Power Oxidizer “an environmental solution that pays for itself.”

CLIMATE DRIVEN: Natural oxidization of gases in the atmosphere takes up to two decades. “We can’t afford to wait that long,” Castro says, explaining that his company’s technology artificially accelerates oxidation from 12 to 20 years to 2 to 3 seconds. “When you do it that fast, you destroy those harmful contaminants and, in the process, generate an immense amount of heat.”

3. Bion Analytical:
Defensible Lab Data
TITLE: “How To Generate Results In Your Lab That Your Operations Team Can Trust”
SPEAKER: Kristi Plack, director of technical operations
WHEN: 10:30 am, Wednesday, June 3 – Track 2

Ethanol plants depend on lab data to optimize operations, troubleshoot and ensure final product quality, but what if their lab results can’t be trusted? FEW speaker Kristi Plack of Bion Analytical says there are several sources of error that impact the accuracy of lab data, including sampling error, instrument error and human error.

“Some of it is unavoidable, but the error experienced in an ethanol plant lab can and should be managed to ensure the highest quality data possible,” Plack says. “We can never totally get away from error, but we can minimize it.”

Plack will present on an FEW panel titled, “Sharpening Your Staff Saw: Training And Tools To Get The Very Best Performance From Your Team.” Her presentation will focus on reducing lab data error by adhering to analytical standards, reference materials, sample duplicates and related control charts. She intends to offer producers specific and practical strategies for producing lab data that is both reliable and defensible.

“If you’re trying to make value-added optimizations, you have to start with accurate data.”

ETHANOL FOCUSED: Sioux Falls, South Dakota, based Bion Analytical has tailored many of its products and services for ethanol plants. Plack says Bion has worked with more than 100 U.S. ethanol plants since its startup in 2008.

4. xF Technologies:
Make Another Product
PRESENTATION: “Upgrade Of Ethanol To A Diesel Oxygenate”
FOUNDER: Len Rand, president & CEO
WHEN: 10:30 am, Wednesday, June 3 – Track 3

Blending ethanol into diesel has always been a challenging proposition. Incompatible boiling points, vapor pressures and energy densities have made the fuels reluctant associates. Now, the founder of a New Mexico-based technology firm says his company has developed a way to transform ethanol into an eight-carbon oxygenate that plays well with diesel.

Len Rand, president and CEO of xF Technologies, is ready to talk to ethanol producers about licensing his company’s thermochemical process to upgrade ethanol to a diesel oxygenate blendstock called Ethyl 408 (ethyl furoate). “It offers producers a pathway to take corn and corn stover processing into the diesel market, which will be as large as the gasoline market within 25 years,” Rand says.

Dave Sams, vice president of business development at xF Technologies, will speak about Ethyl 408 at the FEW, joining a panel called “Diversifying Product Streams And Determining Their Impact To Plant Bottom Lines.”

Rand says he thinks the economics of producing Ethyl 408 will capture the attention of FEW attendees. “The cap-ex is about the same as a conventional corn ethanol plant,” he says. “Diesel is 50 cents to $1 more than gas, so that gives you an idea of the higher margins that producers could capture, along with D4 RINs.”

COLOCATION POTENTIAL: Rand envisions his technology being colocated with existing ethanol plants. Corn and ethanol would be routed to the xF plant where both feedstocks would be consumed in the production of Ethyl 408. Downstream, the product would be blended with diesel at 5 percent.

5. Drying Technology Inc:
Money-Saving Moisture Control
TITLE: “Fuel Alcohol Industry Losing Millions Due To DDGS Overdrying”
SPEAKER: John Robinson, owner & president
WHEN: 1:30 pm, Tuesday, June 2 – Track 3

John Robinson believes the U.S. ethanol industry is failing to capture $50 million to $100 million annually because of poor coproduct moisture control, and he’s got a system to stop it from persisting. “You can call it overdrying, but it is actually the result of weaknesses in industry drying methods,” says Robinson, the founder of Texas-based Drying Technology Inc.

On an FEW panel titled “Deploying Hardware Solutions To Maximize Coproduct Profitability,” Robinson will discuss his company’s three-prong approach to more efficient DDGS drying.

First, the company deploys an inside-the-dryer moisture sensor that reduces “dead time” and final moisture control variation by no less than 30 percent. Next, another sensor is installed for detecting dryer load swings. And finally, the company uses a precise mathematical method for continuously recalculating the set point necessary for maintaining optimal moisture control following evaporative load changes.

“When these three exclusive solutions are put to work, moisture control variation is reduced by as much as 49 percent,” Robinson says. “This allows producers to leave more water in their product knowing that it is not exceeding the upper specification limit.”

GOOD PAYBACK: Because most plants have poor moisture control, they typically keep their target moisture below specification—usually less than 12 percent—to be on the safe side. Robinson’s company narrows the moisture control curve and tightens up the process. “It translates into a $1-per-ton net increase in income,” he says. “This saves a 110 million gallon plant at least $350,000 a year.”

6. Celignis:
Speedy Biomass Analysis
TITLE: “Use Of Near-Infrared Spectroscopy For The Rapid Low-Cost Analysis Of A Wide Variety
Of Lignocellulosic Feedstocks”
SPEAKER: Daniel Hayes, director
WHEN: 10:30 am, Wednesday, une 3 – Track 4

Biofuels companies using third-party labs for feedstock analysis often wait up to two weeks for test results. Now, with near-infrared spectroscopy (NIR), Limerick, Ireland-based Celignis can provide full compositional data on virtually any biomass sample within one day of receiving it.

Daniel Hayes, the company’s director, says the super quick process is also accurate and affordable. “It’s a screening method that allows customers to evaluate more samples within budget and timeframe,” he says, adding that NIR is a great fit for cellulosic ethanol developers because the composition of feedstocks and pretreatments producers deal with varies widely.

So far, Celignis has processed over 1,000 biomass samples using NIR. The company has analyzed miscanthus, peat, straw, waste paper and cardboard, sugarcane bagasse and may other raw materials, developing NIR models for many key ingredients found within biomass—glucan, total sugars, lignin and ash, for example.

Hayes, who will join an FEW panel titled “Lignocellulose’s Sweet Side: Converting Biomass Feedstocks Into More Easily Processed Sugar Streams,” says it is the most wide-ranging demonstration of NIR for biomass analysis ever conducted.

DOWN THE ROAD: Currently, Celignis does NIR biomass testing in its own lab. Ultimately, Hayes says, Celignis’ intellectual property could be applied in an online basis within a biomass processing facility so that process data can be provided on a real-time basis.

7. Bio-Process Innovation:
Boost Productivity
TITLE: “Directed Evolution Fermentation Process For Improved Yields, Rates & Production In Corn Ethanol Facilities”
SPEAKER: Clark Dale, president & CEO
WHEN: 1:30 pm, Tuesday, June 2 – Track 1

The simultaneous deployment of multiple yeast strains could give ethanol producers a big fermentation boost, says Clark Dale, president and CEO of Indiana-based Bio-Process Innovation. Joining an FEW panel titled, “Exploring Best Practices For Yield Maximization,” Dale will explain how directed fermentation (DE) fermentation relies on different yeasts to be more assertive under different conditions. “If you’re running your fermenters a little warm, the yeast strains that are more thermophilic will be more dominant,” he says. “DE improves and adapts to the specific way the plant is running.”

Four yeasts—one patented strain and three propriety strains—work together in DE fermentation, which would be possible with only minor changes to the way an ethanol plant’s fermenters are run. Dale says the results at lab scale look promising. “It would potentially give a producer a 50-percent boost in productivity from every fermenter in the plant,” he says, explaining that the technology would also decrease fermentation time, decrease bacterial infection, lower cleaning and bring down yeast expenses.

IMPLEMENTATION COST: Dale and his team have been working on DE fermentation for about five years. He’s ready to talk to ethanol producers about proving the technology at demonstration scale. “The investment would be small, and the payback would be almost infinite,” he says, adding that he will discuss the associated capital and operational costs of the technology at the FEW.

Author: Tom Bryan
Editor in Chief, Ethanol Producer Magazine