Putting Progress Ahead of Price

EPM's editor previews the latest issue, which includes insight on how the price and availability of steel impacts producers making upgrades and installing new grain storage. Plus, an exclusive look at POET, and an update on ClearFlame's progress.
By Tom Bryan | November 17, 2021

The image of raw steel production tends to evoke the industrial might of mid-century America—Pittsburgh steel mills, auto manufacturing, skyscrapers, bridges and ships—the Rust Belt’s iconic creations. But looking at steel production nostalgically is a distinctly American thing, as it is far from obsolete. Global steel production has tripled in the last half century, and we use far more of it today than ever before. In the U.S., we tend to think of steel manufacturing in the past tense not because it’s gone, but because we haven’t kept up. China dominates the industry, and steel manufacturing is largely out of sight, out of mind.

Despite the pandemic, global steel production has hardly waned since 2019, but U.S. output dropped by a fifth and hasn’t returned to full stride as demand has. As a result, carbon and stainless steel prices have ballooned. How is this relevant to ethanol? Well, if you’re not ordering new equipment, tanks, vessels, bins or buildings, perhaps it isn’t. But for ethanol producers replacing aging infrastructure, upsizing storage or investing in new technology, steel matters.

To understand how the state of steel affects ethanol, we turn this month to the makers of our bins, tanks and process vessels. In “Starting with Steel” we learn that while production costs are higher, and delivery times longer, many ethanol producers are still moving forward with projects. For some, it’s a matter of no longer being able to defer what’s necessary. Others are compelled to move forward with low-hanging opportunities like high-grade alcohol—striking while the iron is hot, albeit expensive.       
 
From the heavy-gauge steel that is burned, beveled and rolled to form the welded shells of ethanol storage tanks, fermenters and condensers, we turn to the corrugated steel containers that house our industry’s principal input. In “Grain Storage on the Grow” we look at how producers are pushing onsite corn storage to new heights (and widths). With a bumper crop on the way, we catch up with Sukup Manufacturing Co., which recently delivered the 2.2-million-bushel corn bin pictured on our cover. While bin makers certainly aren’t insulated from steel-related challenges, they say the payback on going big with storage remains attractive.

When you’re given an opportunity to interview the leader of the largest biofuel company on earth, you take it, and we’re eager to share what we learned from POET CEO Jeff Broin. In “Solutions at the Surface” we offer an in-depth look at POET, which acquired six Flint Hills Resources ethanol plants in 2021, lifting its overall production to nearly 3 billion gallons per year. POET has always blazed its own trail, and more than three decades after launching the company, Broin’s vision remains uniquely independent and bold. With the long-term goal of net-zero carbon, POET is as committed as ever to investing in new technologies, embracing change and still daring to discover.        

Finally, we catch up with ClearFlame Engine Technologies, two years after the company introduced itself to our industry. Putting test trucks on the road, ClearFlame is edging closer to commercializing a technology that makes it possible to run ethanol in diesel engines. With diesel use totaling 60 billion gallons in the U.S. alone, the market implications are enormous, and the air quality and climate benefits profound. 
     
       
Author: Tom Bryan
President & Editor