ICM aims for strong legacy

For two decades, ICM has adapted with the changing times, bringing technology solutions to the ethanol industry. This article is titled "Designs on Success" in the November issue of EPM.
By Holly Jessen | October 14, 2015

In 1995, ICM Inc. got its start with the purchase of the engineering, manufacturing and marketing divisions of High Plains Corp. located in Colwich, Kansas. On day one, 20 people reported to work, including 10 manufacturing employees. Also on the team were brothers Dave and Dennis Vander Griend, today CEO and senior process engineer, respectively; Randy Ives, now of Gavilon LLC, and Brad Box, now retired. 

What they didn’t have was a plan. Dave Vander Griend tells Ethanol Producer Magazine he had no concept the company would end up designing more than 100 ethanol plants.  “You are kind of like a ship in the storm without a rudder,” he says, adding that in early 2000 the focus was on not tipping over and by the late 2000s, the goal was to keep from sinking.

The team eventually zeroed in on an opportunity in the ethanol industry, the need for a better distillers grains drying system, and spent the first year developing a design. The first two ICM dryers were installed at the first two Delta-T plants in Winnebago and Benson, Minnesota. Actually installing the first dryer was a challenge for the team, Vander Griend said. For one thing, it was December in Minnesota, on the coldest winter on record. “We were pouring cement and everything else in the freezing temperatures, building a dryer that we’d never built before, outside in the freezing temperatures, trying to start it up in freezing temperatures,” he said. He recalled sleeping in the ethanol plant’s electrical control room for seven days, leaving only to eat. “We couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work,” he said. “We didn’t have any instruction manual, because we had never built before.”

In the late 1990s, ICM worked with Phoenix Biosystems to develop an anaerobic digestion technology. That patented technology was installed in a number of ethanol plants.

In 2009, the company built and began operating a commercial-scale demo gasifier. The technology was tested with more than 16 feedstocks over the next four years. In March the company announced an ICM-designed gasification demo unit would be installed at a regional wastewater facility in San Jose, California. 

The first ICM-designed plant was built in 2001. Fagen Inc. was the primary contractor for the facility in Russell, Kansas, which is now owned and operated by White Energy. After that project, the design-build team of ICM-Fagen developed a partnership. Out of the more than 102 ethanol plants designed by ICM, Fagen built about 75 of them and the remainder were built by ICM, Vander Griend said. 

At the peak, in about 2006 to 2007, the build-out of the ethanol industry was happening so fast, companies like ICM and Fagen struggled to keep up with demand. At one point, ICM was actively working on 25 projects simultaneously. “We were doing a startup every week,” he says. “We were literally starting the plant up at its designed rate because, 10 days later, the team had to be somewhere else.”

It was a difficult time. “You just literally could not keep up with the demand,” he says. As a result, it was difficult to do adequate startup and shutdown training. Besides which, the margins were so good at the time, plant management didn’t want to shut down the plant anyway. “They wanted to run and make product.”

It was frustrating and disappointing for all involved. “It was such a hectic time that nobody really got the attention they really deserved,” he says. “It took a lot to recover from that, with our customers at ICM-designed plants.”

In 2008-’09 the industry was built out, for the market size. ICM shifted gears, while continuing to focus on work to support the ethanol industry or agriculture.

Present Day
Today, ICM employs more than 325 people, some of whom work at the Colwich headquarters, some at ICM’s pilot plant and R&D facility in St. Joseph, Missouri, and others are field employees, working from various locations. The company sells parts and provides maintenance services for any ethanol plant, not just ICM-designed plants. In addition, ICM offers plant management services through Energy Management Solutions Inc. and is currently managing five ethanol production facilities. ICM’s first plant management opportunity developed by accident, rather than design, Vander Griend says, after Tharaldson Ethanol LLC, an ethanol plant in Casselton, North Dakota, reached out to ICM for help solving a faulty dryer design. Over the years, the company has assisted multiple marginally designed plants improve operations, he says.

Another big focus for ICM is providing bolt-on technologies to the first generation ethanol industry. That includes ICM’s patented Advanced Oil Separation, patented Selective Milling Technology and patent-pending Fiber Separation Technology, all trademarked technologies.  In addition, the company has been working to validate its patent pending Gen 2.0 technology, for collocated cellulosic ethanol production, more than five years, Vander Griend says. As that technology was developed, it was realized that the same dilute acid front end process that worked to ferment traditional biomass cellulose, could also be used on corn fiber, which is also cellulose.

ICM’s trademarked and patent pending Gen 1.5 Grain Fiber to Cellulosic Ethanol Technology was proved out with a 1,000-hour run at full commercial-scale in 2012. In July, ICM hit another major milestone when it completed the second of two 1,000-hour performance runs of its Gen 2 technology, using first switchgrass and then energy sorghum as feedstocks. “The last nine months has been a whirlwind of activity, basically running this thing like a production facility,” says Jeremy Javers, director of technology development, about the pilot plant in St. Joe.

The Gen 2.0 technology has two unique aspects worth noting. “Our approach to conversion of cellulosic biomass is, I think, fairly different from what others are doing,” says Doug Rivers, director of research and development for ICM, adding that the company has worked with multiple confidential partners to develop the technology.

First, the ICM process utilizes a low-solids pretreatment system, meaning, on a weight basis, for every 100 pounds run through the process, about 80 percent is water and up to 20 percent solids, Javers says. Other technologies may push through 30 pounds of solids per 100 pounds of cellulosic slurry. With recycling, ICM’s process uses about the same amount of water as other process designs.

Next on the list is the production of an animal feed coproduct, Rivers says. The company made that feature a priority from day one, in an effort to offset the high cost of enzymes at the time. “In the meantime, the cost of enzymes has dropped dramatically, thanks to the ingenuity of the enzymes companies that are out there, and so now we have a coproduct that really does, in fact, add to the bottom line, as opposed to offsetting another operational cost,” he says.

ICM’s focus on coproduct production with its cellulosic ethanol production process also comes out of its roots in the grain-to-ethanol industry, Javers says. Coproduct production is an important revenue stream for first-generation plants, helping keep the industry profitable. ICM’s technology separates out the yeast used in the Gen 2.0 process, resulting in a high-protein, single-cell protein animal feed. It is 40 to 50 percent protein and can be fed to many types of animals, he says, including pigs, chickens and aquaculture.

The company has also been working with outside partners on biochemical production technologies for both first-and second-generation ethanol plants, Rivers says. For example, plants that separate corn fiber could produce cellulosic ethanol or separate the cellulosic sugars for onsite chemical production or for sale to other companies for further processing. Cargill Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland Co., are both ethanol production companies that already produce multiple products from corn, as well as sell products to other companies for further processing.

ICM first installed its Fiber Separation Technology at ICM Biofuels, adjacent to the St. Joe R&D facility, followed recently by IGPC Ethanol Inc. in Aylmer, Ontario. Work is ongoing to install the technology at three additional ethanol production facilities, Redfield Energy LLC, in Redfield, South Dakota, Kansas Ethanol LLC in Lyons, Kansas, and E Energy Adams LLC, in Adams, Nebraska. The projects have proposed startup dates in mid-November, early 2016 and mid-2016, respectively.

Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine