Sonication technology debuts in Iowa

By Jerry W. Kram | March 10, 2008
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Squeezing more ethanol out of a kernel of corn continues to be a goal for ethanol producers. Quad County Corn Processors in Galva, Iowa, will be testing technology from FCStone Carbon LLC that promises to do just that.

Called sonication, the technology will use sound waves to break down corn starch and make it more available for enzymatic hydrolysis. Sonication will be used on the cooked corn slurry prior to fermentation. Research indicates that the process allows a more efficient breakdown of the corn starch, which means a higher conversion of corn into ethanol.

According to Mike Kinley, vice president of technology for FCStone Carbon, the company has also demonstrated that sonication also makes enzyme activity more efficient.
While a great deal of attention is given to cellulosic ethanol, the traditional corn-based ethanol industry continues to innovate, Kinley said. "Far from remaining static, advancements in corn ethanol production technology continue to be realized," he said. "Our ultrasonic process is evidence of a new and innovative approach to making the industry more sustainable over the long run. The ethanol industry is an industry constantly seeking improvements."

The sonication equipment is being manufactured and should be delivered to Galva by early spring, said QCCP General Manager Mike Jerke. He said it shouldn't take long for the equipment to be installed and for testing to begin. "We are going to install the equipment in such a way that it can be scaled up," he said. "It won't be a plant-wide application of the system right off the bat. We will run it on a portion of our production until the kinks and bugs are worked out. We are hoping that scale-up phase will be completed before we are very far into the summer."

The new technology will be installed as part of the "cook train" between the slurry mixing and fermentation tanks. QCCP is currently installing some parallel loops, so the plant won't have to be shut down while the equipment is being installed. "In the worst-case scenario, we may have to slow down or moderate our cook flow, but that won't impact full production," Jerke said.

The testing will indicate how the sonication technology affects production efficiency and enzyme use. "There is a lot of potential here and a lot of things we think can happen, but the actual application and running at a real-time pace will tell us what will bear fruit," Jerke said. "The best-case scenario would be that because of the improved breakdown of starch, we'd see a better conversion rate (more gallons per bushel of corn used). We would certainly like to think there would be some reduced costs for enzymes. Those are the primary things we will be looking for."