Good Chemistry

Ethanol plants and chemical companies work together to improve profits and enhance industry. This feature article appears in the December print issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Ann Bailey | November 15, 2016

As the ethanol industry has evolved and grown, so, too, has the response of the chemical companies that provide the plants with the products they need to process the biofuel and coproducts.

“The ethanol industry is fairly young and still maturing, so they’re continuously learning new ways to make themselves more efficient and trying new ways to do things.  There are a lot of opportunities in the ethanol industry,” says Todd Emslander, vice president of U.S. Water’s ethanol process technologies team.

“The continuous search for improvement is motivated by industry drivers such as regulatory compliance, risk mitigation, asset integrity, brand assurance, increased efficiency and profitability.  Every plant wants to reduce variability in processing, so plants are interested when new products or services allow them to run more smoothly. Many of the chemicals used in these plants today help protect the equipment in place, allow the facilities to maintain their product quality and consistency for their customers,” Emslander says.

Changing to Meet Demand
One of the steps chemical companies that supply products to the ethanol industry have taken to accommodate their plant customers is to offer certain commonly used chemicals, such as sulfuric acid and enzyme amylase in bulk. Bulk handling is becoming increasingly available to the ethanol industry as it matures, says Paul Shepperd, Solenis biorefining applications project manager. “I view the evolution of the industry in the (United) States, particularly, is the steel was put on the ground, you learned how to use it to make ethanol, and, beyond that, you were looking for ways to take costs out and make your operation more efficient, and I think that’s really an indication of the maturity of the industry at this point.

 “I’ve seen this happen in the pulp and paper area, in the textile area, and many other industries, as you learn and understand what you’re going to be using in the long-term, folks look at the bulk purchase as a way to take costs out in terms of the tote bins,” Shepperd says. “You eliminate that cost.” Bulk handling can also aid the controls and tracking of chemicals that potentially become part of the feed coproduct.  “Generally, it gives the plant a good handle on what’s going on.”  Another important reason that plant managers purchase chemicals in bulk is that storing the products in, and distributing them from, tanks reduces safety risks, Shepperd adds.

“We’ve got a lot of bulk tanks,” says Ryan Carter, general manager of Tharaldson Ethanol in Casselton, North Dakota While some products, such as dry urea, are not available in bulk, other ones, such as sulfamic acid, are. “If you can get it in bulk, you typically get a better price on that chemical, so we put bulk systems in our plant. Keeps it cleaner, keeps it more organized. Keeps it safer. We’re trying to get operators from having to handle totes of chemicals as much as possible.”

Another improvement in process chemical handling is the use of better and more sophisticated automation and feed control, says Andrew Ledlie, Solenis biorefining marketing manager.  It used to be fairly common for pumps to be controlled manually or with a timer, he says, but now there is more use of data, the plant distributed control system (DCS) and in-line sensors to help improve and optimize the dosage of different chemicals. “This is an area where we have invested heavily in, to add value as a chemical technology provider.”

Chemical Innovations
When it comes to the chemicals that are used in ethanol plants, the most recent innovations are those used in corn oil extraction, Carter says. “I would say that has been a big game changer in corn oil products for efficiencies out of the plant.”

“The value for the corn oil itself is higher per pound than our DDGS, than the animal feed,” Shepperd says. Value propositions like that drive innovation, particularly among equipment suppliers, to develop technologies for separating individual streams which then have the potential to be higher value.  Ultimately, the value of coproducts will be determined by the market for them, Shepperd notes. If there is a viable market, “then the question becomes can you put the equipment in place and do you do need a chemistry to help make the equipment work?”

Rules and Regs
Another driver of innovations in the chemistries that ethanol plants use is regulations. For example, the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety and Modernization Act has required that ethanol plants change some of their testing and cleaning methods, Emslander says. New FDA rules suggest that sulfamic acid, which traditionally has been used as a clean-in-place chemical for equipment may not be acceptable for use in animal feed, so ethanol plants are looking at other chemicals they can use to replace it, he notes.

Producers like Tharaldsons are taking a close look at the new products.

“We’re in the process of running trials with approved chemicals to take over sulfamic acid,” Carter says. “We are working with some different companies right now.” Becoming FSMA compliant requires some work, but he believes it is well worth it. “There are some hoops we have to jump through,” he says. “But, I think in the long run, it will help us with a positive spin on what we do in the industry and what we do in the livestock feed market. We can say we’ve gone through all of these steps. This is clean. This is good. This is what FDA wants us to do.”  Tharaldson plant employees are now undergoing training, Carter says, “to make sure that we’re certified to do in-house checks and balances and make sure we’re compliant with that.”

Chemical companies assist ethanol plants in complying with FSMA by offering alternative products, Emslander says. For example, sulfuric acid, which is used in cleaning and adjusting pH in some ethanol plants, can be replaced with other chemicals. A U.S. Water product called pHyOUT, for example, mitigates some of the deposits that plants typically required sulfuric acid to treat, Emslander notes.

Safety Training
Training employees in the safe handling of chemicals is an integral part of the operation of Tharaldson Ethanol, Carter says. “These guys do multiple safety training every single month, so we’re always up-to-date. When there’s a new chemical we’re working with, it’s part of my policy that the vender of that chemical comes in and supplies some training and all the data sheets that go with that chemical, so we understand what we’re dealing with. [Employees have] to understand the product before we allow them to work with it. The operations department works with the chemicals at first, but there are times when, obviously, the maintenance department has to go out and repair something.

They’ve got to be familiar with the chemicals because when they are breaking into a flange or a pump, they’ve got to understand the hazards that could be there potentially.” The maintenance crew meets with the operations manager or shift lead, reviews pertinent information and suits up with safety gear, if needed.
On-site Assistance
Working with plant managers and employees to teach them how to properly use chemicals and other inputs is something all providers put high on the priority list. Solenis, for example, has an in-the-field workforce available for its plant customers, Ledlie says. One of the challenges some plant managers face is what he calls the “knowledge gap” or finding employees who are experienced and knowledgeable about handling chemicals. “We’re seeing more customers who want to partner, especially if they do have that knowledge gap.”

Emslander sees it as a win-win situation for chemical companies to work together with the plants they serve to improve the industry as a whole. “From what I have been seeing, the industry is trying to get better. There are a lot of vendors just like us trying to help the industry improve,” he says. “In turn, we’re getting a lot of support from the industry as we learn and work together to continue to help the industry grow, become more efficient, and have a greater impact on the overall market” Emslander says. Right now, he adds, “Regulatory compliance is a key driver of innovations in the chemistries used by ethanol plants.”

Author: Ann Bailey
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine