Concentrating on Coproducts

A diverse group of people pooled their expertise to design an advanced fractionation system specifically for the ethanol industry that maximizes food-grade production and product yields.
By Anna Austin | March 05, 2009
Unique is an appropriate word to describe MOR Technology LLC's fractionation system, and the group of people who banded together in 2006 to form the company, including "Dippin' Dots" Inc. ice cream inventor Curt Jones; SEMO Milling LLC Chief Executive Officer Ken DeLine; corn-milling veteran Dan Claycamp; and family farm owner Kurt Ulrich.

Ulrich's son, Brad, who is the director of technology at MOR Technology, says that even though MOR team members have diverse backgrounds, one thing each share in common is that they've all been successful in their particular ventures. This combination of varying expertise has resulted in the development of a fractionation system that produces coproducts that are considerably more valuable than those of traditional fractionation systems, the company says.

Pieces of the Puzzle
Jones, whose background is in microbiology, participated in a host of early, cutting-edge research in the ethanol industry, Brad Ulrich says. He was a lead researcher for Southeastern Illinois College's Ethanol Production Program, where he led plant operations and training and performed research on carbon dioxide utilization, feed byproduct improvements and algae growth research.

Years after founding Dippin' Dots, a $50 million company, Jones had become less involved in the daily operation of the ice cream business and desired to once again work in the ethanol industry, which had gained a lot of momentum since his departure. "He had done early work in cellulosic ethanol and algae research, so he understood the broad possibilities for renewable fuels," Ulrich says. "One of the things he was frustrated with is that, after working on a number of research projects in the 1980s, he hadn't observed much change in process technology in the 20 years since he left the industry."

The initial observation Jones made was that ethanol plants can be more efficient than they are right now, Ulrich says. "At the time, we had been working on developing a project in southern Illinois," he says. "One of my main jobs was to develop and select second-generation technologies for that plant, and it was during that project that we became familiar with SEMO Milling and Dan Claycamp, one of the leading corn milling engineers and scientists in the country."

Claycamp has designed and operated a wide range of milling systems and equipment with a focus on corn milling. He is the designer and contractor for the newest food-grade corn mill in the country, SEMO Milling in southeast Missouri, with which he developed the concept for a unique fractionation technology.

"As we got to know them, we became very impressed with what they were doing and became familiar with the relationship they had with Rodger Marentis, a Pennsylvanian who developed a supercritical oil extraction technology," Ulrich says. "All of that, over the course of the next couple of years, led to the formation of MOR Technology and MOR Supercriticial, to take both the fractionation technology and the oil extraction technology to not just the corn-based ethanol industry, but broader—the oilseeds and renewable fuels industries as well."

Distinctly Different
MOR Technology sees itself as significantly different from any other fractionation offering out there, Ulrich says. "The biggest differentiating factor is a germ wet-mlling technology, where we take the germ produced from the dry fractionation process and perform an additional wet milling step on it," he says. "At the end of the day, it gives you product quality and yield that you would typically see with a wet mill, but with the capital and operating costs of a dry mill." That's because the wet milling step is performed on a smaller scale for only a short period of a time, making it cheaper to operate and build, Ulrich says. "I think other people who have approached fractionation—not particularly designed for the ethanol industry—have approached it based too much on traditional food-grade corn milling applications," he says. "That's why you see systems with so much starch loss."

Compared with other types of fractionation systems, most of MOR Technology's equipment is the same but the process and the way the equipment is arranged is set up differently, Ulrich points out. "That is the most important factor in an ethanol-specific fractionation system," he says.

MOR Technology doesn't source all of its system components from the same provider, which is also a common practice. "From his experience in the corn milling industry, Dan has operated just about every type of equipment out there, and he understands that one company may make the best roller mill, while the other makes the best sifter, while another makes the best degerminator and the best bran finisher," Ulrich says. The process, which is suited for ethanol production, was formulated by finding the best pieces of equipment to perform each specific task, he says. MOR Technology went a step further by designing proprietary modifications to pieces of the milling equipment, and filed for patents on the modifications. "We are operating the equipment significantly differently than it was intended to be used." Ulrich says. "So that's a novel aspect, which no one else that we're familiar with has done."

Food-Grade Focus
MOR Technology's efforts are concentrated on producing coproducts that meet stringent food-grade requirements. "We believe that there's no sense in doing fractionation if you're not focusing on food-grade products," Ulrich says. "One of our competitors promotes low energy use and a short flow, and there are advantages to that, but they're going to have a 7 percent to 8 percent starch loss, while we will have only 2 percent."


MOR Technology says it's fractionation system provides a quality product and yields that would typically be produced at a wet mill, with the capital and operating costs of a dry mill.
SOURCE: MOR TECHNOLOGY

Ulrich says that an average competitor's distillers dried grains protein content would be about 40 percent, while the MOR Technology system produces distillers grains with about 60 percent protein content. "This is a major difference," he says. "It all goes back to the numbers—fractionation is a difficult thing to wrap your head around from a numbers standpoint because there are so many variables. Out of all these different products and compositions, the most important is starch loss and protein content in distillers grains.

Targeting food-grade markets can be an extraordinary benefit if a fractionation process can produce clean, pure products with good separation. MOR Technology sees the future of fractionation going in that direction, Ulrich says. "It gives ethanol plants immediate opportunities, but it also sets them up for additional downstream options that are underdeveloped today," he says. "A perfect example is protein isolates from corn, a lot of food-grade companies are working on that."


SOURCE: MOR TECHNOLOGY

If a facility isn't set up to be food grade, it may be losing opportunities, Ulrich says. "It's a trade-off between product purity and product yield," he says. "It's possible to capture all the starch, but the product will not be pure. The goal is to get pure starch without losing any, and that's what we mean by good separation; the starch in one pile, the germ in one pile, all of the fiber in another pile."

Another factor differentiating MOR Technology's system from others goes back to the germ wet-milling process—the ability to produce a germ product with 40 percent to 45 percent oil, as opposed to 18 percent to 20 percent oil, which is typical for a dry fractionation system, according to Ulrich. "The reason that it is important is two-fold," he says. "Any time you are producing a higher purity product, it makes any downstream processing that much more efficient. Just as important, it creates a product that has an immediate market."

One of the challenges associated with dry fractionation has been a lack of options to utilize the germ product, Ulrich says. "That is the question that we have always arrived at in looking at dry fractionation," he says. "That's one of the big goals of fractionation, and there is a lot of demand right now for corn oil. The supply is fixed from wet mills, but there is a huge demand for corn oil perceived as premium oil. It has the ability to replace vegetable oil if the supply is there. By producing a germ, product with 40 percent to 45 percent oil, you can sell it as a commodity because it is a product that we call "wet-mill germ," which is sold in large volumes today by the wet millers, whereas the dry fractionated germ at 18 percent to 20 percent oil is a brand new product with no market and nobody set up to process it."

The icing on the cake is that MOR Technology's partner Quality Technology International Inc. can provide off-take marketing agreements with MOR Technology's customers for the germ product. "This is a big advantage," Ulrich says. "They've got the ability to immediately get it into the human food-grade market."

Cost, Payback and More
MOR Technology doesn't have its patent-pending system installed in any ethanol plants yet, but the company has a pilot fractionation plant in the SEMO Mill in Scott City, Mo.

By utilizing this system, the company estimates that an ethanol plant could generate an additional 28 cents per gallon in profits, giving fairly conservative values to coproducts and recognizing that some are newer and it may take time to establish values, and by making conservative assumptions about the process. "The 28 cents is after servicing debt, assuming a 50/50 debt-to-equity-ratio and by making reasonable assumptions as to how the project would be financed," Ulrich says. He says that the number could change daily based on many variables, but one of the things the company has noticed is that fractionation is a hedge for high corn prices because it ties more of the revenues of the plant to the coproducts, which trade closer to the value of the corn. "You don't have the big commodity risk that you had before," he says. "When corn was $7 a bushel, the return on investment on our system was about a two-year payback. It's not the same now, as we're looking at a three- to four-year period, but generally that is financeable."

The MOR Technology system is 20 percent to 40 percent more expensive than average fractionation systems—at a cost of about $35 million for all associated expenses—but the payback period will be significantly shorter, Ulrich says. "When we look at a fractionation plant that isn't food-grade, and doesn't achieve low-starch loss and good performance characteristics, [the payback period] might be six to seven years," he says. "In addition, operating with our system would allow a plant to withstand well over a $1 increase in the price of corn."

The price and payback estimates are based on assumptions drawn from a system designed for a 50 MMgy year ethanol plant, which could process about 3,200 bushels of corn per hour, Ulrich says. "We have some flexibility with the size we can provide," he says. "We've modeled according to a nameplate of 50 million gallons, but that could operate as a 70 MMgy plant, as we expect to see an increase in the throughput of the plant when using fractionation."

In reflecting on the development of the MOR Technology fractionation system as a whole, the company has tried to work with as many leaders in the industry as possible, such as ethanol plant designer and builder Fagen Inc., the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center, ethanol technology developers and several universities for feeding trials, Ulrich says. "By being open with what we do, we think we've gained a lot of credibility in the industry."

Anna Austin is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at aaustin@bbiinternational.com or (701) 738-4968.