Chu examines modular cellulosic ethanol production facility

By Erin Voegele | July 08, 2009
Report posted August 6, 2009 at 2:25 p.m. CST

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu traveled to Rochester, Minn., on Aug. 3 to examine three renewable energy projects that are under development within the state, including a mobile self-contained ethanol plant that has been developed by Welcome, Minn.-based Easy Energy Systems Inc.

Easy Energy Systems is an affiliate of Easy Automation Inc., North America's largest provider of feed software and automation. According to Easy Energy Systems CEO Mark Gaalswyk, the company has designed its modular ethanol production technology to benefit Easy Automation's existing rural cooperative customers, as well as other entities worldwide that are interested in small-scale ethanol production.

The company's technology, trademarked as the Modular Ethanol Production System (MEPS) is a self-contained, fully automated ethanol production system that is pre-built in Easy Energy System's factory and shipped to the end user. Gaalswyk compares his company's business plan to Henry Ford's assembly line innovation. "We felt that to be able to do this economically, we had to be able to build [the MEPS] in our factory and ship them out likes peas in a pod," he said.

According to Gaalswyk, the pre-built nature of the MEPS will also allow his company to better serve the international market. "There are many opportunities in developing nations where you don't send a 100 people to go stick-build a plant," he said. "Each one of our pods is about the size of a shipping container and we can just ship it out and they can assemble the pods."

Gaalswyk compares the system to a set of Legos. Each module is formed with a variety of easy-to-assemble pods, and can be configured to produce four standard modular sizes with production capacities of 500,000 gallons per year, 1 MMgy, 2 MMgy or 5 MMgy. These modules can then be combined to configure a production plant of nearly any size.

Within each module, each pod serves a unique purpose. One pod serves as a distillation tower, while others are used to create heat, facilitate pretreatment processes, and ferment the feedstock as well as complete other production processes.

"The pods are interchangeable," Gaalswyk said. "They can be pulled out and replaced with improved technology as the technology changes." The company also offers a variety of pods that can be used to produce heat to fuel the production process, including those designed to burn natural gas, biomass, sugarcane bagasse or methane.

One benefit of the system design, said Gaalswyk, is that it can be configured in a way to that utilizes a heating source other than steam. "Now, we can use steam," he said. However, he continued, a key part of being able to run these smaller plants is to build them in a way that makes them easy to run. "Oftentimes the step into a steam-based system is a big one," Gaalswyk said. "If you can do it without steam, then you don't need [to deal with] water treatment and you don't have all the rules and regulations concerning steam." Instead of steam, the system can utilize a fluid that is pumped through the system and used as a heat source.

The modules can be designed to process a wide range of ethanol feedstocks. The company even offers an add-on pod that can be used to convert the system to cellulosic ethanol production.

According to Gaalswyk, Easy Energy Systems' small-scale modular design will be able to address what he calls the "Achilles' heel" of cellulosic ethanol production - the issues with transporting and storing bulky cellulosic feedstocks. "Our feeling is the answer [to that problem] will be distributed ethanol plants that are fully automatic and economic to build," he said.

Gaalswyk estimates that purchase price of a 1 MMgy MEPS capable of producing cellulosic ethanol will be between $4.5 million and $5 million. This is considerably less that current cost estimates to build a similarly-sized traditional cellulosic facility. In addition, Gaalswyk said that Easy Energy Systems' modular plants place a high emphasis on energy reclaim and should use approximately half the energy of a traditional plant.

Easy Energy Systems is currently running its demonstration-scale pilot plant at full capacity. Gaalswyk said that, to date, hundreds of systems have been quoted and he expects the company's first sale within 30 days.