The Most of Every Kernel

FROM THE JANUARY ISSUE: Two corn kernel fiber-to-ethanol plants are under construction, stirring hope that the concept is gaining steam.
By Matt Thompson | December 27, 2018

In October 2018, construction began on Ace Ethanol’s cellulosic ethanol plant in Stanley, Wisconsin. The plant will be the first to incorporate D3Max’s corn kernel fiber-to-ethanol process, and will help the plant increase its yields and produce higher-protein distillers dried grains with solubles, all without increasing the plant’s energy consumption. “I believe Ace will be the most efficient ethanol plant in the country, with the highest yield and the lowest energy use per gallon,” says Mark Yancey, chief technology officer for D3Max. BBI International, which publishes Ethanol Producer Magazine, is a large shareholder of D3Max.

The relationship between Ace Ethanol and D3Max began in early 2017. “In 2016, we raised equity, and with that money, we designed and built a portable, skid-mounted pilot plant,” Yancey says. Once the pilot plant was built, Ace and D3Max signed a contract for Ace to complete the pilot testing of the technology. Testing began in March 2017 and ran nearly every week until October of that year.

“I think we ran into unexpected things most every week, but we learned from them, and we worked through many phases of development in order to come up with what we think is the ideal process for us for converting the fiber to ethanol,” says Neal Kemmet, president and general manager of Ace Ethanol.

One issue that became apparent during the piloting was a high level of acid, Yancey says. “We demonstrated very high yields pretty quickly, but we knew the acid and the costs associated with that were unrealistic. There would have been too much sulfur in the high-protein DDGS produced by the D3Max process.” Yancey adds that the acid levels have been decreased, but he thinks they can go even lower.

Because D3Max does not develop its own enzymes or yeasts, the pilot phase also was used to test the options available on the market. Testing showed enzymes from DSM and yeast from Lallemand were the best fit. “I think we ended up with two very good suppliers for the first plant,” Yancey says.
With the pilot phase successfully completed, Ace’s members voted to approve the project in April of last year, and work began on the detailed design of the plant. Yancey says Ace opted to use two design firms to eliminate the need to rework during startup. “The second company is essentially reviewing and, in some cases, redoing the engineering calculations,” he says.

As of November 2018, final changes were being applied to the design. “We’re into the final stages of process engineering and then we get into some of the more detailed engineering with some of the electrical and instruments and so we’re still heavily in the engineering phase, but some of those phases are winding down,” Kemmet said in early November. “And, obviously, we’ve already started construction, too, because we’ve got the foundation work and all that done. So, things are still picking up steam, but we’re making pretty solid progress.”

Construction is expected to be complete in September, followed by startup. “I expect the startup to take at least a month and maybe two or three,” Yancey says. “So, the plant should be fully operational by fourth quarter of 2019.”

According to Yancey, D3Max’s technology is different than other corn kernel fiber-to-ethanol technologies because it keeps the corn fiber process separate from the corn starch ethanol process. “We will actually measure the amount of ethanol produced with the D3Max process, so we will have a direct measurement of the amount of cellulosic ethanol. It’s essentially one-to-one; each gallon will produce one D3 RIN (renewable identification number). Of what’s being marketed to the industry, D3Max is the only separate processing technology available.”

That technology works for Ace because it integrates well with the plant’s existing infrastructure and has added benefits for its distillers grains, Kemmet says. “We looked at the DDGS after the D3Max process, and we felt that was a good fit for our local feed market.”

The technology will also benefit the plant and Ace’s shareholders financially, Kemmet says. “We feel that this project will give us a financial advantage. It gives us another revenue stream, if you will. So that’s what we’re hoping for—that the technology will allow us to provide more shareholder value for our members.”

Yancey says Ace had been exploring it. before working with D3Max. “Ace has been terrific to work with. Before I talked to them, they had been looking at cellulosic ethanol for several years. So they were very knowledgeable about it. They had the right attitude in terms of not being afraid to try something new. And they’ve just been great to work with.”

Kemmet agrees. “I think we’ve learned a lot from each other along the way and I think it’s been a good working relationship.”

Also on the horizon is a plant that will incorporate ICM’s Generation 1.5 technology into its design. Development of the technology was completed in spring 2017, and the Element plant in Colwich, Kansas, broke ground in May 2018. Jason Friedberg, general manager of Element, says construction should be finished by mid-2019.

Brandon Emme, ICM’s principal scientist, says Generation 1.5 incorporates the company’s Selective Milling Technology (SMT) and Fiber Separation Technology (FST).

“The most recent iterations of these products that we launched last year help set a plant up for being able to implement our Generation 1.5 process, because the SMT delaminates the bran from the starch in a strategic way, so you can obtain a higher fiber recovery, and then the FST is built such that it removes that fiber from the starch stream,” Emme says.

Like the D3Max process, Generation 1.5 has benefits for coproducts as well. “Because we pull the fiber off, your DDGs are high in protein and very low in fiber. You can introduce that to different animal feed markets such as poultry and swine where that’s a significant value-add,” Emme says.

While Element hasn’t yet started its cellulosic ethanol production, Emme says ICM is already looking at ways to improve Generation 1.5. “Basically, as soon as we get the first 1.0 version done, we already have improvements that we’re working on to get more out of it and make the process even simpler than it already is right now,” he says. “Those take development, but we haven’t proven those out yet. There’s new things coming out in pretreatment design. There’s new enzymes. There’s new yeasts. Those all can have an impact on how 1.5 will look five years from now.”

Shaping the future
Yancey, Kemmet and Emme say it’s only a matter of time before corn kernel fiber-to-ethanol is adopted on a wider scale within the industry.

“People are going to evaluate technology based upon their tolerance for risk and their local market,” Kemmet says. “So I think this technology makes sense in a lot of ethanol plants. Now, some plants might go with other technologies based upon other agreements or based upon their local market, or their willingness to spend money on capital improvements, but I definitely think there’s a big opportunity for this technology to be applicable to other ethanol plants.”

Emme says, “You definitely get a lot of questions and there’s a lot of demand that people want to do it. Once the Element plant starts up, I think people will be quite happy to add it on to their process.”
Yancey says he pictures adoption of corn kernel fiber-to-ethanol technology to mirror the industry’s adoption of corn oil extraction. “Corn oil extraction just became kind of a no-brainer. I believe almost every ethanol plant does that now. This is a bigger, more complex project, but I think it will be adopted in a similar fashion.” He adds that adoption might be a little slower, as the initial capital expenditure for the technology is much greater than that for corn oil extraction. But the potential payback is much greater, too, he says.

“I see nearly the entire industry adopting corn fiber-to-ethanol, because the advantages a plant would have with this technology are so great,” Yancey says. “Because it can increase the net profit of a plant by about 15 to 20 cents per gallon of ethanol produced, and for an ethanol plant to not adopt that, it would put them at a big disadvantage.”

Author: Matt Thompson
Associate Editor,
Ethanol Producer Magazine