Unlocking the Power of Corn

Fractionation—long considered an interesting but expensive add-on—may finally gain traction in the ethanol industry.
By Holly Jessen | August 27, 2010
Front-end fractionation can help ethanol plants diversify coproduct streams for increased revenue. As Jeff Scharping, director of product management and sales for ICM Inc., says, "Fractionation unlocks the power of corn." He's not alone in admiring the technology. "I'm a huge believer in fractionation," says Neal Jakel, general manager of Illinois River Energy LLC in Rochelle, Ill. "Fractionation will change this industry. It makes us much more profitable, diversifies our risk. It is worth the investment, no doubt about that. You will see in the next two to five years, a lot more investments in this. I know it, I feel it."
Jakel and Scharping, along with Michael Regier, technical director at Cereal Process Technologies LLC, gave presentations about the technology at the 2010 International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo. All agreed fractionation is a proven technology that, when implemented correctly, can provide myriad benefits for an ethanol plant. Scharping says corn-to-ethanol production hasn't been close to utilizing corn to its full potential. With fractionation, and the ability to use corn bran as a cellulosic ethanol feedstock, the ethanol industry can take corn-based ethanol to the next generation, he says.

Interest in fractionation has been renewed since the U.S. EPA identified it as one of the advanced technologies ethanol plants can use to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, says Pete Moss, vice president of marketing for CPT. While ethanol plants under construction prior to the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 were grandfathered in, new ethanol plants and new production capacity at grandfathered plants have to meet at least a 20 percent reduction in GHG emissions. The inclusion of indirect land use impacts in the calculation of GHG reductions for the revised renewable fuels standard (RFS2) will make this a tough hurdle. The EPA says that corn ethanol plants using natural gas or biomass for process heat and installing new, more efficient technologies will meet GHG goals for conventional biofuels. "Fractionation is one of those technologies," Moss says. According to the company's initial evaluation, CPT fractionation can help an ethanol plant reduce GHGs by 23 percent.

Benefits of Fractionation
Dry fractionation is the mechanical separation of corn, Regier explains. The endosperm, or the higher starch portion, is used for ethanol production. Removing the non-starch fraction results in energy savings for the plant due to more efficient fermentation, less fouling due to the removal of corn oil and decreased energy requirements to dry the distillers grains. "Traditionally the germ and bran just go along for the ride throughout the ethanol plant and don't do anything for the ethanol product, other than require more energy to dry that product and require more pump horsepower to transport that product," Reiger says.

New coproducts providing ethanol plants with new revenue streams help producers diversify and provide risk mitigation, Scharping says. ICM's President and CEO Dave Vander Griend believes the ethanol industry can provide both food and fuel for the world, Scharping explains. "We look at dry fractionation as a front door to that." Germ is the high oil portion and can result in food-grade corn oil or nonfood-grade oil suitable as a biodiesel feedstock. Fiber can be used in a variety of ways, including burning for steam generation, as a feed ingredient or potentially for cellulosic ethanol production. In addition, at the end of the process, ethanol producers will have higher protein levels in their distillers grains making it better suited for monogastric feeding in swine, poultry and aquaculture operations. CPT is also working with a company that is interested in producing anhydrous ammonia from bran.

Ultimately, fractionation provides flexibility, Reiger says, and transforms ethanol producers into agricultural processing facilities, able to diversify and take advantage of market fluctuations. "It's not only about the ethanol yield per bushel now, it's also about the coproduct revenue per bushel," Regier says. "In an ag processing mindset, you want to maximize your highest revenue streams."

While the CPT system provides the flexibility to produce more corn oil when prices are good, maintaining consistency in the protein content of the distillers grains produced is important too. To maintain 40 to 42 percent protein content in the distillers grains, CPT performance data shows that a balanced starch/oil yield is approximately 59 to 63 percent oil from the germ stream and 93 to 95 percent from starch. "That's what the marketplace wants, they want consistency," Moss adds.

CPT's fractionation system has been proved on a large scale at one ethanol plant—the Valero Energy Corp. plant in Jefferson, Wis. In addition, the same system is installed at three other locations that produce products for the industrial and food-grade industries. In the near future, it will be installed at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center for additional testing.

ICM's fractionation technology has been in place for more than three years at LifeLine Foods LLC in St. Joseph, Mo., Scharping says. In early June, the company announced that it would receive $25 million from the U.S. DOE to build a cellulosic ethanol pilot plant at that location, where ICM will modify the existing dry fractionation operation to incorporate cellulosic ethanol production from corn fiber, switchgrass and energy sorghum.

For producers looking for a fractionation process with lower capital costs, ICM is developing solvent fractionation. This system will provide food-grade corn oil, fiber for cellulosic production, food-grade protein, grits with 50 percent protein, clear starch and feed-grade protein. The company plans to complete a pilot plant by the end of the summer and a demonstration plant in 2011.

Due Diligence Pointers
Although fractionation offers ethanol producers many positive possibilities, Jakel cautions producers to do their research before selecting a technology. It's a big investment and it's critical that producers ask the right questions as they evaluate fractionation, he says. Although Illinois River Energy doesn't have a fractionation system installed, Jakel has experience in designing and optimizing fractionation in previous jobs. A turnkey fractionation system including building and utilities for a 100 MMgy plant can cost $30 million to $60 million. Further complicating the issue is that there are many wet and dry fractionation technologies out there. Jakel says he has counted 14 fractionation companies, and there are likely more. "Every single technology is different," he says.

One factor to examine closely is coproduct quality. What kind of distillers grains will the technology produce? Different companies have used different protein percentage numbers, varying from 30 to 40 percent, depending on how the plant is run and whether syrup is added. The impact distillers grains has is a huge driver, Jakel says, since it is a premium product and the potential loss to the plant is large. "It has a dramatic effect on the bottom line." A savvy producer will also ask what kind of bran a certain fractionation technology produces. Is it fine or whole? Will it need additional grinding? What is the starch content of the bran produced? Germ quality will impact pricing, and corn oil with high free fatty acid content will be dramatically discounted. "With some of the technologies out there, you will have a hard time extracting (corn oil)," Jakel adds. "All germ is not created equally."

Other markets ethanol producers can access with fractionation, such as fertilizers or pet foods, can be tricky. While the margins are good in pet food, for example, it's an even pickier market than livestock feed. "People are willing to pay a premium, but man, you'd better make sure it's the highest quality-controlled product you've got in your facility," Jakel says.

It's also important to be realistic, he cautions. Different fractionation companies are promising widely different throughput increases, from 8 to 20 percent. "Can your plant even do it?" Jakel asks. "I know for sure that at my plant right now, we are running full out at 115 MMgy, I cannot get 10 percent more capacity unless I invest another 20 or 30 million dollars."

Corn is another major consideration. A front-end fractionation system requires more corn to produce the same amount of ethanol. Again, the numbers Jakel has heard are all over the board, from 3 percent up to 30 percent more corn. Although the added coproducts mean additional revenue, the increased cost of corn must be taken into account. Corn logistics need to be considered as well. With more corn coming in, additional on-site storage bins may be needed and more man hours needed to cover additional corn-receiving operations.

The list of points Jakel recommends be covered in vetting a fractionation process is long. Other questions include the type of performance data the company has for its technology and whether it has been tested or verified by a third party. It's also a good idea to ask about the financial backing of the company, he says. Next on the list are available resources, such as what kind of training and start-up services the company provides. What about break-downs? Does the company offer 24-hour service? Does it have spare parts on hand?

An engineer can help an ethanol plant as it is evaluating new technologies, Jakel says. For those companies without an in-house engineer, he recommends contracting with an engineer. "I can't stress enough, when you are investing this kind of money on these technologies, spending money on someone who understands this industry, who understands corn, is well worth the due diligence effort from you," he says.

Despite Jakel's long list of factors to consider, he's still very much a proponent of fractionation. "It really is that key technology that opens the door to many more things," he says. "It opens up the door, but you have got to find out, what's behind the door."

Holly Jessen is associate editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at (701) 738-4946 or hjessen@bbiinternational.com.