Integrated Innovation

FROM THE JUNE ISSUE: Element LLC employs ICM’s new process technologies, coproduct systems and efficiency improvements in one state-of-the-art facility. Construction is underway.
By Susanne Retka Schill | May 28, 2018

Element LLC is the name of the state-of-the-art 70 MMgy corn ethanol plant under construction in Colwich, Kansas. The name represents the project’s purpose: to demonstrate the separation of the elements in a kernel of corn and the many elements that need to be efficiently integrated in a successful ethanol plant design. Groundwork began at the site adjacent to ICM Inc.’s headquarters last fall, and once the partnership with The Andersons Inc. was announced in March, construction began in earnest. Startup is scheduled for next spring and full operation of all units is expected by year end.

The project will showcase ICM’s newest technologies, including a couple yet to be deployed. “ICM’s vision is to give our customer base the opportunity to see our entire suite of technologies consolidated into commercial-scale production,” says ICM President Chris Mitchell.

For The Andersons, the project not only expands the company’s ethanol capacity, but helps meet other goals. “Our investment executes on several of our strategic priorities, such as operating efficient and profitable ethanol production facilities and developing new technologies with higher-value coproducts,” says Mike Irmen, president of the ethanol group at The Andersons.

Diversifying ethanol coproducts has become ICM’s focus in recent years, says CEO Dave VanderGriend, as most of the process and energy efficiency gains have been identified. “There’s five or six elements in a kernel of corn,” he says. “We’re separating every one now to maximize their value.”

Site, Technology
Element is being built on the site of a former Abengoa plant. ICM bought the property in the bankruptcy auction following Abengoa Bioenergy’s demise, precipitated by the Spain-based parent company’s financial restructuring. Abengoa had purchased the plant in the early 2000s from High Plains Corp., expanded and upgraded it, but only ran it intermittently in recent years.

Element’s $175 million price tag includes the first commercial deployment of ICM’s patent-pending Gen 1.5: Grain Fiber to Cellulosic Ethanol Technology, where corn fiber separated on the front end will be pretreated and converted in a separate system before reintroduction into fermentation. Gen 1.5 builds on the company’s Select Milling Technology V2 and Fiber Separation Technology Next Gen.

While many plants have installed SMT and several have added FST, only one plant has installed ICM’s newest technology, TS4 (Thin Stillage Solids Separation). “The only way we could get all of the pieces in one facility to show what it would look like to put it all together was to do it at one plant,” VanderGriend says. 

Having commercially produced sufficient quantities of the new higher-value feed products is critical, Mitchell says. “It can be a long cycle getting these feeds into rations.”

Element will also include ICM’s patented gasification technology developed more than a decade ago when natural gas prices were at record highs. Interest plummeted, however, when prices dropped and, without a commercial installation, it was difficult to demonstrate that the technology works, VanderGriend says. Waste wood from the Wichita area will be used in the gasifier to generate the majority of electricity and process steam for Element. That, along with other efficiencies, lowers the plant’s carbon footprint.  

“When you add everything together, it will be the most efficient, lowest carbon footprint corn ethanol plant in the world,” VanderGriend says. The carbon score on the cellulosic side scores 10 on the California carbon rating system, he says, while the ethanol from the starch side is around 55. That compares with gasoline at 96 and conventional corn ethanol in the 70s. Ethanol yields are expected to exceed 3.1 gallons per bushel of corn.

While much of the plant will look like a typical ICM design, there will be differences taking full advantage of the new technologies. Hammermills used for grinding corn, for instance, will be replaced with the roller mills in SMT V2. FST Next Gen removes 10 percent of the material (fiber), changing the sizing of liquefaction tanks and other systems that follow. Removing solids with TS4 will impact the configuration and operation of the evaporators, as well as clean up backset, which impacts front end operations. Efficiency gains also impact the sizing of motors and pumps throughout the plant. “With these technologies combined, the design and operation of the facility will be significantly different than the traditional ethanol facility,” Mitchell says.

Full Circle
For VanderGriend, the construction of Element brings his career full circle. In 1985, after assisting in the construction of several farm-based ethanol plants, he moved to Colwich to manage a new plant for High Plains. The first job was to rebuild parts of the 10 MMgy plant to operate more efficiently.

Working with High Plains’ construction arm, he built several plants, including three for Broin Associates, the forerunner of today’s Poet LLC. In 1995, High Plains decided to leave the construction trade, so VanderGriend bought part of the Colwich property and an office building and launched ICM Inc. High Plains retained its ethanol plants that Abengoa would purchase a few years later.

“We looked at the industry and asked, ‘What is one thing that doesn’t work very well?’” VanderGriend recalls. “That happened to be dryers.” Since ICM’s first redesigned dryer was installed at Corn Plus in Minnesota, ICM has installed about 400 more throughout the industry, he says. In 2001, VanderGriend decided to apply all the lessons learned from High Plains and the plants repaired and rebuilt by ICM, to develop a new plant design. He attributes the successful design used in 105 plants in North America to his brother Dennis. But, he recalls, it was nearly impossible at first to get anybody interested in the new technology until they could see it. “We had to build one to demonstrate the efficiency and performance. We built one and everybody wanted one.”

That’s one of the goals of Element, too. “It will give the industry the opportunity to see these components assembled together, as well as the new coproducts,” Mitchell says. “It will be compelling and the best way to show what the opportunity is, rather than displaying it through a PowerPoint and outlines.”

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Other Plants Under Construction
Element is one of three ethanol plants under construction in the U.S. The other two are:

Elite Octane LLC
Elite Octane LLC began receiving corn in May, filling its two 2 million bushel Sukup grain bins, says CEO Nick Bowdish, calling them “the world’s largest steel bins.” The 120 MMgy plant is expected to begin commissioning in early June. It’s been a long time coming for the Atlantic, Iowa, facility. Previous entrepreneurs began developing the plant in 2006 and a significant amount of construction was completed before work ended in 2008. Contractor Ron Fagen bought the site in 2012 and engaged N Bowdish Co. LLC to put the project components together and begin recruiting a new set of private investors. Fagen Inc. relaunched construction on the ICM-designed plant in early 2017.

Ringneck Energy & Feed LLC
In scheduling reminiscent of the industry build-out a decade ago, as Fagen crews finished a project in Iowa, the team headed to Onida, South Dakota, where construction got under full swing last fall for Ringneck Energy & Feed LLC. Commissioning of the 80 MMgy, ICM-designed plant is expected in late November, says CEO Walt Wendland. ICM’s Energy Management Services will manage the plant.

Located north of Pierre, the Onida location is in the heart of cattle country, and about 100 miles west of the closest ethanol plants. But even with attractive local corn prices, raising equity capital for this project was far more challenging than the two Iowa plants Wendland helped launch, he says. Compared to 900 investors in Golden Grain Energy LLC in Mason City, Iowa, and 1,300 investors in Homeland Energy Solutions LLC in Lawler, Iowa, Ringneck has a small crew, at just under 200 investors. “There are a lot fewer farmers out here, plus the poor farm economy,” he says. “And this is an area that hasn’t had a lot of success with value added. In the end, the ethanol plants and large investors stepped up to finish the deal, making it a pretty strong company.”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Freelance Journalist
retkaschill@yahoo.com