At the Heart of the Ethanol Process

Long-time ethanol lab manager, Jennifer Roepke, wears many hats while striving for overall plant success. This article appears in the October print issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Ann Bailey | September 20, 2016

Jennifer Roepke recognizes her work is just part of the process. The lab manager at Heartland Corn Products in Winthrop, Minnesota, takes great pride in doing her job in a way that will benefit not only her laboratory, but the company as a whole. “A lab manager in ethanol needs to understand the process—from the grinding of the corn to the shipping of the ethanol,” Roepke says.

Heartland Corn Products Vice President Tim Miller appreciates Roepke’s attitude. “She’s our Rock of Gibraltar,” Miller says. Roepke was the first person he hired when the plant started up in 1995, he notes. With her background in science, she seemed like she would be a good fit for the position at the new ethanol plant, he says.

Roepke, who earned a degree in biomedical science from St. Cloud State University in 1990, worked in the genetics laboratory at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for four years before moving to the Winthrop area in 1994 with her husband, Scott, who works as a biologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “I thought: ‘What am I going to do there?’’’ Roepke recalls. When Heartland Corn Products brought the ethanol plant on line in 1995, Roepke decided to apply for the job, even though she knew what she would be doing in the lab there would be very different from what she had done at Mayo Clinic. “There aren’t a lot of genetics labs out in small towns,” Roepke says. “If I was going to take a job close to where my husband was going to work, I was going to have move out of that type of medical field.”

 While there was a learning curve involved in working in an entirely different type of laboratory, a bigger challenge was moving from a large company to a small one, Roepke says. “You have to wear a lot more hats in a small company. You have to learn how to cross-train and a do lot of different tasks, whereas at Mayo Clinic, you kind of learn one thing and become very, very efficient at it.”

She immersed herself in learning about ethanol in her first few weeks on the job, traveling to an ethanol plant in South Dakota to be mentored by a lab manager. When she finished that, she went to a yeast school in Kentucky. “I had a lot to learn—still do,” Roepke says. She continues her education on the ethanol industry and innovations in lab techniques and technology by attending workshops and using the resources available through the Renewable Fuels Association, she says. “They give us a lot of guidance.”

Two Decades of Change
During the past couple of decades, technology has significantly changed the way work is done in the laboratory at Heartland Corn Products.  “It’s a lot different than it used to be,” Roepke says. “The specification list on ethanol has been added to through the years and each time they make an addition, it’s an additional test. That’s constantly changing, and I am sure there will be more testing in years to come. We’ve added a lot of equipment for different things. We’ve added density meters, a Karl Fischer titrator, ion chromatography. Another big one is gas chromatography.”

The additional tests are required because they help ensure the product quality is more consistent, Roepke says. Besides all of the tests that her lab conducts, she and the lab technician also issue fill certificates when unit trains arrive to pick up ethanol at Heartland Grain Products. “We take a sample, run all of the tests on it to be sure that the numbers meet specifications and then we issue a certificate of analysis to our customers for those trainloads of ethanol,” Roepke says.

She enjoys the challenge of keeping on top of the changes in the ethanol industry. “I like there’s always something new to be learning.  A lot of the learning comes from the changes in the enzymes and the yeasts and how we’re trying to optimize fermentation,” she says.

Just as Roepke’s knowledge about ethanol industry laboratory testing and procedures has grown during the past 21 years, so has the capacity of Heartland Corn Products. “It used to be a tiny 10 million gallons a year (MMgy) plant,” Roepke says. “Now the plant is 100 MMgy, 10 times what it originally started at.”

Roepke takes pride in doing her work in a way that has a ripple effect down the line. She strives to catch details in lab results that help Heartland save water and be more energy efficient. “You look at a sample that’s coming out of a certain step in the process and ask questions, if you see changes have occurred along the way, and try to figure out what is causing lab numbers to drift away from the baseline,” Roepke says. “It’s establishing normal so when things do change, you know they’re changing.”

Finding ways to improve efficiency is what Heartland Corn Products strives to instill in all of its employees, Miller says. “That’s always been the goal for all of us. We’ve all worked together on that,” he says.

It’s evident Roepke has a broad knowledge of Heartland Corn Products and understands the importance of seeing the big picture. During a plant tour, she shares information with visitors about plant equipment—both inside and outside. She talks about the new buildings and tanks that have been constructed over the years, and why they were added to the ethanol plant.

“She’s got a wealth of knowledge about how everything works both in the lab and in the plant,” Miller says. “She’s our go-to person. She’s our E.F. Hutton. When she talks, we all listen. She knows the process from the bottom up and she has been a great employee for us, a wonderful resource.” 
Roepke not only has a lot of knowledge about how the ethanol process works, she’s willing to share it with other Heartland employees, he says. “She works with the operators and with the supervisors and explains to them how the process is working both biologically and physically. (She) teaches.”

“When we have new operators. I spend quite a bit of time with them, trying to get them to understand what every step in the process is for and why it’s important for them to watch their parameters,” Roepke says. 

Miller appreciates the pride that Roepke takes, not only in her work in the Heartland Corn Products laboratory, but in the company as a whole.  “She acts like she owns the place, which is good.”


Author: Ann Bailey
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
abailey@bbiinternational.com
701-738-4976