Fueling a New Market

A mid-Atlantic company may have developed a solution for two of ethanol producers' main problems: natural gas usage and how to increase demand for their product.
By Kris Bevill | August 27, 2010
Chances are that if ethanol producers had to name one operational cost they wish they could reduce or eliminate entirely, the unanimous answer would be "natural gas." According to this year's Christianson & Associates PLLP biofuels benchmarking report, 92 percent of non-electrical energy consumed by plants participating in the survey is natural gas. It is the most expensive input in ethanol production after corn and because of this, ongoing research is being conducted to find sustainable replacements for natural gas in the ethanol industry.

LPP Combustion LLC may have the answer to the ethanol industry's search. The Columbia, Md.-based technology company has developed a system that can convert ethanol and other liquid fuels into a natural gas substitute, which can then be used in gas turbines and boilers in a number of industries.

Leo Eskin, president and chief operating officer of LPP Combustion, describes his company's technology as being a fairly basic conversion process. "What it does is it changes liquid fuels into a type of gas called LPP [lean, pre-mixed, pre-vaporized] gas. The way we do that is simply by heating the liquid and combining it with a background diluents—we use nitrogen from the air—and, basically, we dilute the liquid vapor down. The LPP gas looks and acts just like natural gas and can be burned in hardware and burners that are designed for natural gas."

Benefits of Burning Ethanol
This technology could provide a boost for ethanol producers on two fronts: it provides a new use for their biofuel while simultaneously reducing their need for natural gas. LPP leaders saw the opportunity for ethanol producers early on in their development process. So far, however, they have struggled to sign up multiple ethanol producers for the system. "It came to mind to our group that these guys are using power off the grid or natural gas or other fossil fuels and they're trying to be a ‘green' facility," Eskin says. "We've tried to approach them to see if there might be an opportunity, but the market has been challenged. There hasn't been a lot of new construction recently and they're pretty tight on cash [so] we haven't been able to take that forward as quickly as I had hoped."

Financing issues may be preventing a widespread launch of LPP technology at ethanol plants, but it hasn't been a total shut-out. Caseus Energy and its subsidiary, Dubay Biofuel-Greenwood LLC, are very interested in the possibilities of utilizing LPP's technology. Caseus Energy has been sending ethanol samples from the Dubay Biofuel demonstration-scale, cheese whey-to-ethanol facility in Wisconsin to LPP to determine "basically, how much green electricity we can produce from our ethanol and which form of ethanol should be used to produce maximum electricity," says Eduard Zaydman, Caseus Energy's business development and marketing manager. Caseus Energy is constructing a commercial-scale facility near its demonstration plant and plans to bring it online in 2011, possibly with LPP equipment installed. Zaydman says engineers from both companies are collaborating to determine if and how the equipment will work at that facility. "Once we finalize the tests and know exactly how much ethanol [is needed], we can deploy that system," he says. "We're definitely interested in that."

Ideally, Caseus Energy would employ LPP technology to utilize the over-capacity ethanol produced at the plant. "For example, if our plant produces 3 million gallons of ethanol a year and we can produce, let's say, three and a half, we can use that half a million gallons a year towards electricity production," Zaydman says. "So we'll use electricity generally in the plant, saving some money and capturing green credits."

Green Electricity
Eskin says the opportunity for users to reduce their emissions is an important benefit of LPP's technology, adding that, depending on the feedstock used to produce the biodiesel/ethanol, the LPP gas could be CO2 neutral. "The work that we've done with a small gas turbine actually showed that the biofuels burned had lower emissions of CO [carbon monoxide] than even natural gas," he says. "These small industrial settings put out a fair bit of CO2. A 10 or 25 megawatt gas turbine is probably one of their main sources of CO2 emissions, so [they] can make a great savings in CO2 emissions all at one time."
In addition to the Wisconsin plant, Caseus Energy is pursuing projects in South America and Europe, where producing ethanol for clean energy generation is a bigger attraction than using it for transportation fuel. According to Zaydman, areas where cap and trade programs are in place have greater demands for clean electricity and, in general, ethanol as a transportation fuel is not as popular in those areas as it is in the U.S. "They are really interested in producing electricity only," he says. "We have developments going on right now in Argentina, we're cooperating with Brazil, we'll have a project in Italy, and we're hoping to deploy LPP technology in those places." Caseus Energy will use its whey-to-ethanol technology to produce ethanol for all of the projects. Zaydman says Italy is the largest of the three proposed projects and therefore may also produce some ethanol for transportation.

Another reason to produce ethanol for electricity generation, according to Zaydman, is that a lower grade of alcohol can be used, which reduces the amount of costly equipment needed at the production facility. Eskin says LPP has tested the technology with a range of fuels and found that it works well even when low-grade fuels are used. "We're very actively pursuing all of these opportunities for low-grade fuels, like the water in the ethanol or liquid natural gas condensates—things that are normally thrown away or flared because they can't sell them—we're looking to turn those into a natural gas replacement and create electricity with them," Eskin says. "For example, we've tested ethanol with a very substantial amount of water in the ethanol. We can burn with the 5 percent, we've actually burned ethanol with significantly more water than 5 percent, more than 20 to 25 percent water."

Eskin says LPP's technology costs approximately 10 cents per gallon so the cost comparison between LPP gas and natural gas relies heavily on the cost of the liquid fuel used. "It's not a large cost of conversion," he says. "That's why it's very important that we don't need transportation-grade."

The equipment used in the system is skid-based and is not large—between one-sixth and one-fifth the size of an industrial-scale gas turbine according to Eskin. The system can be installed during new construction or as a retrofit. "Our piece of equipment goes just upstream from where the natural gas comes in," Eskin explains. "The liquid fuel storage tanks or pipeline would come in to our skid-based piece of equipment. We try to do the vaporization fairly close to the combustion device because we have to keep the piping hot enough to make sure the liquid stays in the gaseous form. The liquid goes in one side and hot LPP gas comes out a pipe on the other side and gets piped into whatever the piece of equipment is."

New Market Possibilities
While many ethanol producers may not be in the financial position to install LPP's technology at their own plants, they could find a market in supplying fuel to other facilities that are able to utilize the substitute natural gas. "One of the types of groups that we're actively partnering with is fuel suppliers, because they're the ones that have the ability to produce liquid fuel at a reduced grade," Eskin says.
According to Eskin's estimates, a massive amount of ethanol would be required to operate a commercial-scale turbine. "A good rule of thumb is that an 80 megawatt gas turbine would use something on the order of 50 million gallons per year of diesel," he says. "You would use almost twice that amount of ethanol. That's actually a good thing in many respects because now you've got a guaranteed offtake for these clients."

While LPP's technology is fuel agnostic, users need to determine if they are going to use ethanol or other fuels before installing the system. Because ethanol has a lower Btu content than biodiesel and requires more fuel, the pipe sizes need to be larger for ethanol-fueled systems and more heat would be required to gasify the ethanol. "It would be hard to transition from diesel fuel to ethanol," Eskin admits. "If you knew you wanted to use ethanol, you would make sure that you designed for the heaters and things to be properly sized for the ethanol requirements."

LPP is currently operating a 30 kilowatt Capstone gas turbine at its demonstration-scale facility in Columbia, Md., and Eskin says the company is developing several industrial-and utility-scale projects throughout the U.S. "Utilities tend to be slow to make decisions, so we're certainly in discussions with utilities but our expectation is that other smaller opportunities will come to pass more quickly," he says. "There are over 300 university presidents that have made announcements that they plan to reduce their carbon footprints significantly, and many of these universities tend to have 10 to 20 megawatt gas turbines. Those are very good opportunities for us."

Kris Bevill is an associate editor at Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at kbevill@bbiinternational.com or (701) 850-2553.