Is Fractionation the Cure for High Corn Prices?

In the wake of recent price hikes in the corn market and rising global food costs, ethanol producers are looking for ways to cut operating costs. One option that is starting to gain traction is fractionation. While the process isn't new, it is becoming an attractive option for ethanol producers who are feeling the financial pinch of this turbulent year.
By Amanda Watkins | October 06, 2008
Ethanol producers have had to shift gears significantly in the past year as the price of corn has reached all-time highs. Producers who are used to corn prices in the $2 per bushel range have recently been faced with prices as high as $6 a bushel and little hope of any near-term price drops. As producers struggle to stay profitable, technologies such as fractionation are available to help overcome this hurdle.

Fractionation is a simple process that can help producers realize major benefits by creating a waste-free system. The purpose of the technology is to make use of each part of the corn kernel, rather than the traditional method of extracting only the starch. Fractionation separates the kernel into three sections: the germ, bran and endosperm. The germ contains oil, and is responsible for kernel growth. The bran resides in the fibrous outer layer of the kernel and protects it. The endosperm contains 98 percent of the kernel's starch, and accounts for 83 percent of its dry weight. The process is designed to isolate the starch for ethanol production, and separate the germ and bran and use both as coproducts.

FWS Technologies in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has been developing fractionation systems since 2004. The company has designed a unique technology adapted from grain cleaning and machine milling systems that is sparking the interests of many U.S. and Canadian ethanol producers. Its technology removes nearly half of the oil from the corn kernel to prevent the fermentation process from becoming "sluggish." According to Rick Chale, chief executive officer at FWS, the process allows the company to keep its costs lower than other fractionation processes. Glen Foster, process engineer at FWS, believes their fractionation system is the "best bang for the buck," costing one-third to half as much as their competitors.

Separating the Facts
According to Chale, the reason for the increased interest in fractionation is simple: cost savings. "A couple years ago all ethanol producers wanted [was] to have capacity they wanted to make more ethanol," Chale says.. "That focus has since changed within the industry. [The price of] corn has gone up and we're very much at a break-even scenario for ethanol producers. So now they have to start looking at ways to decrease the cost of production. Fractionation is one of those tools."

FWS's economic models show that adding a fractionation system to a 190 MMly (50 MMgy) plant can increase its net income between $10 million and $20 million. This increase is a result of revenue from the bran and germ coproducts as well as the production of ethanol. FWS estimates that adding a fractionation system to an ethanol plant could increase a plant's revenue by $15 million. By removing the nonfermentable products from the starch, the percentage of starch in the slurry increases, which accounts for a 9 percent to 10 percent increase in yield. The addition of germ as a coproduct adds more than $11 million dollars in revenue, while the bran brings in close to $3 million per year. Chale says that those savings are nearly a single year's profits and that ethanol producers should be reducing their production costs if they aim to remain profitable. "[Ethanol producers] have to learn to get back to earning money and to lower their production costs," he says.

Another appeal of fractionation is that producers can attain higher quality distillers grains with solubles (DDGS), which creates additional opportunities. By removing the bran and germ from the DDGS the feed is better suited for the swine industry. Currently, DDGS are not ideal feed for swine, as they prefer a soybean meal diet. The low lysine and poor amino acid concentration in the DDGS make them insufficient for the swine's nutritional needs. With fractionation, not only do the bran and germ become available to produce other coproducts, but the higher quality DDGS can be sold to a wider market, which includes swine industry.

Production costs also decrease due to the potential to reduce energy use in the plant. Drying the wet cake that is later mixed with solubles to create the DDGS is easily the largest energy consumer in a typical ethanol plant. According to Foster, the removal of the nonfermentable products from the dryers reduces the energy use of the facility significantly. Fractionation allows not only for more money to be made by opening up the market with higher quality DDGS, but it also saves the plant money through the removal of products from the drying process.

A Waste-Free Process
The benefits of fractionation extend even further than cost savings. With fractionation nearly the entire corn kernel is used. U.S.-based ICM Inc. is currently marketing its system with the premise that fractionation can provide both food and fuel to the consumer. The food that can be provided comes from the coproducts extracted through fractionation. The bran is high in fiber and can be used as an ingredient in a variety of foods including bread, muffins and cereals. The bran is also valuable as a replacement for natural gas. "[Bran] could be used as part of the processed fuels to produce ethanol, which then reduces the reliance of the facility on natural gas," Chale says. The germ extracted from the corn kernel also has many possible uses. It can be processed into corn oil, which can be sold to the food industry as an additive, used as cooking oil or used in the production of biodiesel.

Fractionation has been regarded as the next step toward developing cellulosic ethanol once that technology is perfected. David Vander Griend, chief executive officer at ICM, envisions the steps toward gaining energy independence as starting with the traditional dry-grind ethanol plant, then moving to ethanol production with dry fractionation, and finally to stand-alone cellulosic ethanol plants. According to Vander Griend fractionation is a key step in the advancement of full-scale cellulosic production.

Installing Fractionation in Your Plant
Ethanol producers interested in installing a fractionation component to their plant should expect a fairly seamless process once a service provider is found. The fractionation facility should be 100-by-60-feet and about 100 feet high. It must be adjacent to the corn starch silos and would require additional land space for two extra silos where the germ and bran could be sent for processing after being separated from the starch. These silos would have to be separate from one another and the fractionation building. "Instead of the whole corn going into the ethanol plant we would intercept that corn, run it through our mill, and then separate it into three different fractions," Chale says. "[Then] we would send the endosperm fraction to the ethanol plant and the other two fractions to other silos for further processing or usage."

Considerations for Canadians
Chale believes Canadian ethanol producers have a lot of potential to grow if they adopt a fractionation system. One of the main areas for growth is within the corn ethanol industry. In Canada, the main corn producing areas are in southern Ontario, Qubec and parts of southern Manitoba. Major corn ethanol plants such as Greenfield Ethanol and Suncor Energy are in southern Ontario, while Husky Energy Inc., in southern Manitoba, recently converted its primary feedstock from wheat to corn. As wheat becomes increasingly expensive (with wheat stocks expected to be their lowest since the late 1970s by the end of the year), more companies continue to depend on corn as a feedstock. Fractionation is not meant for wheat-based ethanol plants and if the Canadian market continues to produce corn-based ethanol, then fractionation will become a more appealing option. Also important for Canadian ethanol producers is the possibility of selling their DDGS to the swine industry. As the DDGS produced from a facility using fractionation are not as high in fiber, both the Canadian swine industry and the ethanol industry stand to benefit from the exchange.

FWS is looking forward to what it hopes will be a bright future in the industry. The company is currently working on several projects including building a column crushing plant, grain elevators and grain storage. "We're doing a lot of things in the agricultural industry, we think that's a good place to be," Chale says. "We think that fractionation adds another dimension to what we do, and we think it's going to catch on, and will add a further dimension to our company." Fractionation has the potential to change how the Canadian ethanol industry progresses. As the price of stock commodities such as wheat and corn continue to rise, the industry must begin to consider other technologies to remain strong and profitable.

Amanda Watkins is a Biofuels Canada magazine staff writer. Reach her at awatkins@bbiinternational.com or (519) 576-4500. This article was reprinted from the October 2008 issue of Biofuels Canada.