In the Lab

PhibroChem, the New Jersey-based supplier of antimicrobials for the ethanol industry worldwide, recently opened a new laboratory in St. Paul, Minn., dedicated to expanding its customer service diagnostic work, research and development for the next generation of products for the biofuels industry.
By Jessica Ebert | September 08, 2008
As the management teams of currently producing ethanol plants work to scrape by and continue operating in the wake of record-high corn prices one company is gearing up to offer these producers a way to potentially increase their bottom lines. By keeping ethanol plants healthy through the control of microbial contamination, plant managers can prevent the development of a problem that leads to a loss in profits. To that end, PhibroChem, which is based in Ridgefield, N.J., but has a global reach, recently opened a new diagnostics and research and development lab in Minnesota to cater to the evolving biofuels industry.

PhibroChem is a division of Phibro Animal Health Corp., a global company focused on manufacturing and marketing performance chemicals including products for the ethanol, paint and coatings, personal care and metal finishing industries, and products for animal health and nutrition. About eight years ago, the company decided to establish a research and development, and a customer service laboratory based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. The primary charge of the lab, which at the time was staffed with five people, was to analyze diagnostic kits coming in from the field. These kits can be likened to a first aid kit for an ethanol plant. To identify microbial contamination, samples are taken from areas such as the yeast propagation tanks, heat exchangers and fermentation mash. These samples are collected, packaged and sent to a diagnostic lab where technicians spread the samples onto agar growth medium. The microbes that grow on the surface of this gelatinous substance can then be identified and an appropriate control strategy employed.

An additional goal for the lab was to conduct research toward the development of products to effectively manage microbial contamination in ethanol plants. One of these products is Lactrol, a proprietary combination of virginiamycin and dextrose used to control the growth of bacteria responsible for the production of lactic acid and acetic acid. These acids are toxic to yeasts and lead to lower yields and productivity in the ethanol production process. Lactrol is the only product currently approved for ethanol fermentation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But balancing both mandates—customer service and product developmentproved challenging. In the past, there were some weeks the lab handled about 15 diagnostic kits, translating into more than 3,000 microbial plates manually treated. As the company's customer base increased over the years, the company came to the realization that a new facility would be required to provide a higher level of customer service and continue to support basic research and development capabilities, explains Dennis Bayrock, who has been involved with the Saskatoon lab since its inception and will now manage the research and development portion of the new lab.

Divide and Conquer
"Fast-forward to about six months ago and that vision became a reality," Bayrock says. PhibroChem's Ethanol Performance Group announced the opening of its new lab, located at the University Enterprise Labs on the campus of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, in mid-March. The UEL is a nonprofit, public-private partnership created to provide laboratory space for bioscience companies. The facility currently houses 29 companies that employ more than 250 people. Locating at the UEL was deemed an advantageous choice by Bayrock because the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are a courier hub, many of the company's current clients and its target clients are located in the Midwest and finally, the Twin Cities offer an attractive technical service base. "There were a lot of pluses to moving to Minneapolis/St.Paul," Bayrock says. "I can confidently say that there is no other laboratory like this."

The new lab will be split into two divisions, each with its own manager and mandates. On the customer service side of things, Wayne Mattsfield, a trained microbiologist with experience at the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in the areas of indoor air quality and microbiology and in water treatment, will continue the company's tradition of providing diagnostic services to the industry. With a culture collection of about 500 microbes isolated from ethanol plants across the globe and a new state-of-the-art instrumentation capability, the currently operating lab is well equipped and continues to meet its main customer service mandate. By investing in equipment such as an automated plate counter and new plating technologies, the lab is able to respond to customer needs within 48 hours, Mattsfield says. The response includes, filling requests for diagnostic kits, receiving those kits and setting them up for microbial and chemical analyses, generating and analyzing the data based on these tests and then providing an interpretation for the data including recommendations for improving production through process changes or the application of antimicrobials.

In addition to maintaining this traditional service offered by PhibroChem's customer service lab, employees at the new lab will also wear two other "hats," Mattsfield explains. The first will involve internal work to evaluate products and new technologies. "We anticipate that these technologies will provide our customers better support with respect to [potential] future regulatory issues and [distillers dried grains] analysis," Mattsfield says. The second hat will involve training in basic laboratory techniques and processes common to the ethanol industry such as fermentation. "I think we'll look back in a year from now and just be amazed at the additional things we're going to be able to offer and the progress we'll be making in adding to some of the basic things we're doing now," Mattsfield says.

In terms of the research and development of new products for bacterial control in ethanol plants, the company has a number of patents and products in the pipeline that will soon be released for trials, Bayrock says. "We're making sure we're rigorous in all aspects of product development," he says. "We want to be absolutely convinced that every product that Phibro's Ethanol Performance Group develops will work effectively for a customer to help control harmful contamination. Uncontrolled contaminants cost the industry millions of dollars in lost profits every year."

The new lab will also offer an opportunity to explore and anticipate the kinds of organisms that will likely be involved in the contamination of cellulosic ethanol plants. The microbes associated with these plants will likely be as varied as the feedstocks—ranging from agriculture waste to molasses—that these facilities will be based on, therefore a greater understanding of how these microbes grow and develop in these different environments will be needed. "Our mandate is to understand precisely what these particular organisms are, and under what conditions they flourish," Bayrock explains. "Are they different from the corn-based flora? Are they different from the molasses-based flora? And if so, do our current products work against them or do we need to develop other products to service those organisms too?"

Overall, the two divisions will be founded in the success of the Saskatoon lab with its diagnostic and product development services but with an eye to the future, the lab will aim to grow its repertoire of offerings to service a rapidly evolving industry. "Up in Saskatoon we quickly outgrew our facilities, which limited the services we were able to offer our clients," Bayrock explains. "We are able to and are on the verge of offering more to our clients in the future than we ever could have in Saskatoon," he adds. "This lab fills a much-needed gap both for education and training as well as for understanding how bacterial contaminants affect an ethanol plant."

Jessica Ebert is a freelance writer for Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at jebertserp@yahoo.com.