Minnesota's Innovative Ethanol Man

Novel energy sources and coproduct streams abound at Corn Plus LLLP, an average-sized ethanol plant in southern Minnesota that functions in a far-from-average way. That's because the man at the helm, industry pioneer Keith Kor, is willing to take chances. This is his story.
By Ron Kotrba / Photos By John Cross | June 02, 2008
If one looks at the roots of ethanol what inevitably is found are passionate Midwesterners who fostered an amazing dream. Conversely, this dream has shaped those influential men and women into who they are today. The success of fuel alcohol in the United States would remain just a reverie were it not for the devotion of entire careers to the cause: Stimulating the depressed rural economy through value-added production—of acute interest to the struggling American farmer—and governmental interest in increasing energy independence, which was naturally of interest to good, hardworking Midwesterners.

It was in the 1980s, as the U.S. government determined to become unlocked from the two energy crises of the previous decade, and when Minnesota farmers sought to add value to their crops, that Keith Kor got his start in the fuel alcohol business.

Of all the individuals responsible for the success of today's ethanol complex, there is perhaps no better adaptor and industry role model than Kor, general manager of Corn Plus LLLP in Winnebago, Minn. A Minnesota native, Kor was born in the small town of Tracey and raised in Rochester, home of the famous Mayo Clinic, where world leaders are sent for expert diagnoses and treatment. Like the advanced medicine practiced at Mayo, Kor has implemented more technological advances in Winnebago's little corner of the ethanol world than any other ethanol refinery on the planet: reducing natural gas consumption in the process by more than 50 percent by combusting its solubles from stillage in a fluidized bed boiler; prilling the resulting ash and making $150 a ton selling it back to the local farmers as fertilizer; pelleting its distillers grains to hit the growing corn-burning stove market; installing two towering wind turbines on the property for the plant's electrical power needs; selling carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange gained from its reduced consumption of natural gas; the current trial of microwaving distillers grains, which if implemented in full would eliminate the need for a thermal oxidizer and could boost water conservation at the plant; and more.

And what is the reason for all of this uniqueness and environmentally beneficial complexities? The answer is simple: It's all about taking his plant and his people to new heights by adapting to the ever-changing markets. It helps that Kor is not afraid to take risks. "It's like I once told somebody, I'll either be searching the want-ads looking for a job, or I'll be on the front of a magazine." The ultimate impetus for all of his risk taking and innovation required to fabricate such a unique facility in what some might say is otherwise a sea of cookie-cutter ethanol plants, is to be "the true low-cost producer," Kor says. That and, of course, because he likes doing it. "I tell my kids, don't take a job that you don't like," he tells EPM. "Even if it pays less, take a job that you enjoy. For me, I still enjoy going to work to this day."

Kor's father was a pipe fitter by trade—apropos influence for an ethanol man-to-be. His mother worked in an electron microscope laboratory at the Mayo Clinic. As a boy, he dreamt of becoming a major league baseball pitcher. No doubt the Minnesota Twins topped his list of favorites. After graduating from Mayo High School in 1970, Uncle Sam called Kor to service and he spent three years in the U.S. Army during the Viet Nam War. "I went into heavy equipment in the combat engineering unit," he says. "I drove road graders and bulldozers. I had orders for Viet Nam—10 of us had orders for Viet Nam. And then we all went home on leave and afterwards, out of the 10, five of us got orders to Germany and five got orders to Viet Nam." Kor was one of the five that went to Germany. This was when former President Richard Nixon began de-escalating the troops. One can only imagine how Kor's life would have been different if he were in the group sent to Southeast Asia during such brutal chaos.

After serving three years in the U.S. Army, Kor returned to his childhood town of Rochester and through the GI Bill he enrolled in general classes at the local community college. Perhaps it was his mother's professional influence that prompted Kor to transfer to La Crosse, Wis., where he embarked on a two-year curriculum in the radiology program.

In the meantime, between young adulthood, preparations for war and post-secondary schooling, Kor found the love of his life. He played on a softball team with his future wife's brother, and one day after playing softball he was invited to help with his teammate's housewarming party. "That's where we met," he says. Kor invited Joan for breakfast and the rest is history. The Kors married and have three sons: Joshua, Jacob and Johannes. "My wife and children have been very supportive throughout my career," he says.

Enter Ethanol
In the early 1980s, Kor and his wife were in a bad car accident. "The chord that connects my knee cap was severed, so I was laid up," he explains. "So in the mornings I would get up and go down to the restaurant to have breakfast and these two guys were talking about building an ethanol plant in Houston, Minn.—Dale Morris and Bob Gross. Well I got to talking with them and I finally asked if they had anyone to build their plant." Kor told them his wife comes from a family of 12, all of whom were in construction. He asked the early ethanol industry pioneers if he could put a crew together for them and they liked the idea. "Obviously I couldn't do much other than supervise with my leg in a cast, but we got the crew together and put up the building and everything for them," Kor says. "When we got done Dale asked if I'd like to work with him. I said, ‘Sure, but I don't know anything about alcohol.' He said, ‘Well, you ever drank any?' I said, ‘Yep,' and he said, ‘Good enough.'" Such was Kor's introduction to fuel alcohol in Minnesota in 1982.

His ethanol career at the Houston plant began by working in the trenches as an operator. The plant, Alcon Industries, produced a half-a-million gallons per year, which is miniscule compared with today's standards. But times were different then. Influential pioneers like Kathy Bryan, now president of BBI International and Ralph Groschen, agriculture marketing specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, were pushing the idea of a still on every hill; representing the then-futuristic idea of local production and consumption.

After two years of knowledge-building in Houston, Kor accepted a position as plant manager in Elgin, Iowa, at a 2 MMgy ethanol refinery called Elgin Alcohol. After his stint as plant manager there, Kor was hired by Butler Research and Engineering of Minneapolis. The famous juice-maker Tropicana bought a sugarcane plantation in Jamaica and wanted to ferment the sugarcane in one part of Jamaica and then ship it to the capital city of Kingston where the dehydration plant was located. Tropicana contracted with BRE, and Kor was sent to Jamaica as chief operations manager to train the Jamaicans, troubleshoot and expedite equipment movement from the United States to Kingston. That alcohol was destined for the United States with Houston, Texas, as the port of entry. "A lot of people were upset about bringing duty-free alcohol into the United States," Kor says.

Eventually he returned to the United States and got out of the alcohol business for a while. After a year or so, he became interested in an ethanol plant that was being built in Hopkinton, Iowa. The plant developers planned to use cheese whey as a feedstock and it was built across the street from Swiss Valley, the largest cheddar cheese plant in Iowa. The cheese-whey-to-ethanol plant ran for a year and a half, until the Swiss Valley cheese plant shut down. "It sold all its equipment and moved out of town," says Kor, who was the ethanol plant manager. "So then we had to come up with another feedstock." Kor and his team went to work to devise new and unusual feedstocks. "We started using root beer barrels, marshmallows, gummy bears, those red and white mints you get from Pizza Hut, white sugar, potato starch, Willy Wonka juice—anything that had sugar," he says. "When I'd go to the restaurant in the morning, people would say, ‘Oh I see you're doing root beer barrels today,' because they could smell it in town."

Then There was Corn—Plus
While in Kentucky at Alltech's Alcohol School, Kor bumped into Bill Wells from Delta-T Corp., who asked him to come to Winnebago on a consulting basis and lend an outsider's perspective on some of the troubles Corn Plus was having. This was in 1995, and the plant had just started the year before. "I looked at all aspects of the plant and gave a written report to Steve Core, who was the general manager of Corn Plus at the time," Kor says. What he offered in that report was optimizing strategies to make Corn Plus run smoother with happier employees. "Productivity was not very good," he says. Cross-training employees was one recommendation Kor gave, meaning that the distillation operator would know how to do the front-end operator's job if need be. "Let's say the distillation operator called in sick then they would have to bring in the other distillation operator who was on his day off," he says. The idea was that when an employee earned a day off, they should be able to enjoy it and not worry about getting called into work.

"Plus they were running 12-hour shifts, four days on and four days off," he says. "Well, by the end of the fourth day, they were so tired they could care less what happened at the plant," Kor says. Today the plant schedules its cross-trained employees to work three days on and two days off, and every other weekend each employee would receive a three-day weekend. "It helps to have a happy workforce," he says.

During his observation of plant operations, Kor found that Corn Plus was adding limestone and calcium chloride to the front end because it was thought to be a necessity for the enzymes. But the calcium was plugging up the heat exchangers, and the evaporators were constantly fouling. "About every three weeks they had to hydroblast the evaps because they were filling up with calcium," he says. After eliminating this practice the fouling eventually diminished. Kor also noticed that the plant used narrow gap plate and frame heat exchangers, which kept plugging. "We eventually changed those to wide gaps," he says. After reading Kor's report, Core asked the Minnesota ethanol man if he'd be interested in moving back to his home state and to work as plant manager of Corn Plus. Kor accepted and served in that position from 1995 to the end of 2001. He took over as general manager in January 2002. As plant manager for years and with his operating experience, Kor was well-versed in the operations and process aspect of running an ethanol plant. And thanks to his predecessor's willingness to involve him in board meeting activities when he was the plant manager, he gained an insider's perspective of the executive side of things—and the financials. "When Core left I was familiar with how the board operated, and what they were looking for," Kor tells EPM. "When the roles changed I had to be in tune with the financial side of it, and what the board liked was that I could do both. I knew how the plant ran so I could help down there, and I was already familiar with the business side but knew I needed to learn more."

The roots of the ethanol industry and Kor's vision for Corn Plus are really one in the same. "Back in 1982 I liked the idea of energy independence, and [more than 20 years later] we started to see natural gas costs going up and asked ourselves, ‘How can we control that?'" he explains. A representative from Corn Plus' electrical provider, Alliant Energy, asked Kor what the biggest bottleneck at the plant was. "I told him we were pushing the plant and making a lot of syrup, and I said it sure would be nice if we could burn that as a fuel. About a month later he said, ‘You know what? I think we can do that.'" Tests were run using a small fluid bed reactor at an independent lab in Golden, Colo., and the tests were successful. "People in the industry were saying, ‘You can't burn water,'" Kor says.

This all took place during the onset of the big ethanol boom when many plants were looking at expanding capacity. "I told my board that instead of going that route we needed to try to get more value out of what we have, and be a low-cost producer by cutting our energy costs—so that's what we did," Kor says. "We looked at the fluid bed very hard. It was a tough decision because capital costs were expensive. But it's been running now for three years straight. It's been an amazing project. It's already paid for itself. And now we're getting 25 tons of ash a day out of it and we're generating revenue. In the original business plan that ash was going to a landfill and costing us money—now we're getting $150 a ton for it and generating revenue. In this time of tight margins, it's a nice and welcome income stream," he says.

While that venture propelled Corn Plus to new innovative heights, not all that Kor touches turns to gold—perhaps in due time however that could change. For instance, Kor had a plan to pelletize the plant's distillers grains for resale—under the trademarked name Corn Glow—to the home heating market for use in corn burning stoves. At that time, distillers grains prices were low and the venture looked profitable. It also seemed that with all the new plants and more distillers grains entering the market, prices would remain low. "But the problem we ran into last winter was the price of distillers grains went up to $140 to $150 a ton," he says. "In order to make these 40-pound bags of pelleted distillers grains work, and not lose whatever we'd get from the distillers grains market, we'd have to charge $6 a bag, and wood pellets generally sell for $4.50 a bag. So that's where we ran into a snag with that." But again, the character trait that makes many men successful in their trade is the willingness to take risks. Sometimes the bet is good; other times it is not; but one never knows unless they give it a shot.

In the spring of 2008, Corn Plus became the first ethanol plant ever to sell carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange. "An independent auditor came in and verified all of our syrup flow rates, gas savings—everything—just to make sure that what we said we were saving, we were actually saving," he says. The validation process took six months, and its first credits were sold for an average of $5.92 per ton.

After the wind towers, and microwaving distillers grains trials, Kor says the next step for Corn Plus is water use. Microwaving distillers grains increases the plant's electrical requirements, but if all the moisture from the grains can be captured and recycled—at a rate of 50 percent to 60 percent, which he says is feasible—it would amount to appreciable reductions in the overall water use at the plant. Other avenues of interest are ultrasound technology, which could increase alcohol concentration by 0.2 percent or more, corn oil extraction, and possibly building a biodiesel plant on-site to utilize the oil extracted from the back end of the plant.

No Time to Rest
Once Kor decides it's time to retire, he really won't be retired. "When I retire I don't want to be sitting in a rocking chair doing nothing," he says. "I want to be active—helping someone put a project together, consulting, something like that."

And when Kor finds time to get away from the world of ethanol for a week or two, he enjoys the great fishing and hunting opportunities found in Minnesota, and spending time with his beloved family. Not surprisingly, Kor is an aspiring inventor. "I have an idea I would like to patent," he tells EPM. "It's got nothing to do with ethanol—it's sports related. I have a prototype already built, and I would someday like to get that into the marketplace."

While many in the ethanol industry know Kor, or know of him, he says what people might not know about him is that he doesn't have a college degree. "I guess I'd like people to know it's good if you can get a college degree—that will help—but don't feel that just because you don't have a degree that you can't accomplish things in life," he says. "If you work hard at it—you can accomplish those things in life. It's just that without one the road might be a little harder, but you can do it."

Ron Kotrba is an Ethanol Producer Magazine senior writer. Reach him at rkotrba@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 738-4962.