Engineers on the Ground

The expertise of on-staff engineers pays off in troubleshooting, systems optimization and evaluation of new technology.
By Holly Jessen | September 23, 2010
Adding an in-house engineer to the payroll may seem like a hefty commitment, but facilities that have done so reap the benefits of the investment. In northeastern Iowa, Golden Grain Energy LLC and Homeland Energy Solutions LLC employ three engineers between the two ethanol plants. "It's really been key to Golden Grain and Homeland's success—having that expertise," says Walt Wendland, president and CEO of the two plants. "It certainly makes my job easier."

The two companies have a lot of commonalities, Wendland says, including some shareholders and directors. Golden Grain and Homeland have a cooperative agreement for shared management, including the chief operating officer Chad Kuhlers, an electrical engineer. The other two engineers are Kevin Howes, a chemical engineer, and Don Mork, a mechanical engineer. Although Howes and Mork work principally at Homeland as plant manager and maintenance manager respectively, the three of them have consulted about projects at both plants. "When those three engineers put their heads together, there are a lot of things that can happen," Wendland says.

Many ethanol plants don't have in-house engineers, Mork says, typically contracting out their engineering work instead. With two engineers on-site at Homeland, however, Mork and Howes can get the job done internally, often saving valuable time. Of course, that's not to say that it's only people with engineering degrees that are valuable resources, Mork adds. "You need to use a combination of looking at technical solutions as well as hands-on experience."

Engineers can help an ethanol plant with cost-saving projects, such as energy reclaim/reduction, yield optimization and chemical usage reduction, says John Kwik, president of Dominion Energy LLC, an Ohio-based consulting firm for the renewable and corn wet milling industries. He's not just talking about hiring an engineer to work as a consultant as he does—he believes all ethanol plants should have an engineer or engineers on staff at critical times, particularly during periods of growth.

That may sound odd, but Kwik believes that if more ethanol plants had on-site engineers, it would actually create more work for consulting engineers like him. An ethanol plant without a plant engineer may be so busy keeping the plant running that there isn't time to troubleshoot or recognize the potential for improvements. "I believe there are a lot of two- to three-year payback projects out there," he tells EPM.

As a general rule, he says, having a dedicated engineer on staff should save an average ethanol plant five times that person's salary. In other words, an engineer with a salary of $70,000 should be able to save that plant $350,000 a year. At a larger plant, that number may be as high as 10 times the engineer's salary. However, Kwik estimates that only about 20 percent of the ethanol industry has a dedicated process engineer on staff. Some plants do have management staff with engineering degrees, but other job duties mean they aren't focused on engineering matters.

Neal Jakel, general manager of Illinois River Energy LLC, believes that a poor understanding of the technical processes of an ethanol plant has led to many project and plant failures over the years. Besides Jakel, a chemical engineer, the 100 MMgy ethanol plant in Rochelle, Ill., employs three other engineers, including a mechanical, electrical and chemical engineer. The plant also hires outside consulting engineers to take advantage of specialty skills as needed. "It is a fundamental limitation in many plants that do not have certain critical skill sets," he says.

Although Jakel isn't sure how many ethanol plants have engineers on staff, he wonders if it is on the rise. He points out that the listings for companies seeking engineers on seem to be up recently. As of late August, there were four ads for engineers, including two listings for multiple engineers in multiple plants. Three of the ads were asking for process or plant engineers and one was looking for an engineering manager. All four ads either preferred or required a degree in mechanical engineering, with chemical, electrical or civil engineering also mentioned as preferred or required degrees.
Lifeline Foods LLC, a 50 MMgy ethanol plant and corn milling facility, hired its first on-staff engineer this summer. The facility, located in St. Joseph, Mo., is experiencing growth, particularly on the food products side, says Rick Stoecklein, chief operating officer. "We found ourselves really at a resource deficit," he tells EPM. Although Lifeline can utilize the resources of its parent company, ICM Inc., having an engineer on staff will mean it will have the resources to complete a broader range of projects internally. Another consideration is that as the facility ages, more work will need to be done on infrastructure.

Two engineers—one chemical and one mechanical—work at Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. LLLP, a 45 MMgy plant in Benson, Minn. CVEC is in a bit of a unique position points out Andy Zurn, the company's engineering manager. The typical ethanol plant takes in corn, makes fuel grade ethanol utilizing natural gas and some electricity and ships it out. CVEC takes in field corn, organic corn, wheat and rye and ships out fuel, industrial grade alcohol, both regular and organic, and beverage alcohol, both regular and organic. On top of that, the company has a biomass gasifier to decrease its natural gas use. "You kind of have to have ethanol plant engineers on staff for doing the crazy things we do," he says.

Zurn sees a benefit for all ethanol plants in hiring staff engineers. Innovation is common and fast moving in the ethanol industry—like no other industry he's ever seen. "The [ethanol plants] that don't have separate heads to think and consider and apply some of these technologies, boy I think maybe they're missing out," he says. Typically, an operations manager is so busy running the plant there is little extra time to evaluate new technologies. "The engineer is somebody who can evaluate and research new technology so when you integrate, it goes smoothly and you are highly successful," he says.

That means digging deep into the details, to determine if a new technology is a good fit for a particular plant. An engineer needs to ask a lot of questions, such as whether the technology is reliable and operator friendly. Does it have a good payback, such as in reduced energy or production of more ethanol with less corn? What effect will it have on the rest of the ethanol plant processes? What other companies produce this technology and have they been at it longer, with a better reputation? Does the company provide technical support after the equipment has been installed, or does it disappear? "We do all that due diligence work," he explains.

Zurn agrees that an engineer can help save ethanol plants money, but says those savings can be hard to quantify. One obvious path to savings is when an engineer helps the plant write a grant for a new project. "I can tell you one thing for sure, your ethanol plant will be much slower to innovate and save money without an engineer," he says.

The positive impact on the community is a plus, too. As has been said over and over, ethanol plants bring jobs to rural areas. And it's not just any job, either. "We have quite a few professionals on staff and it's ethanol that brought those jobs out here," he says with pride.

Not all plants employing engineers are large or unusually diverse. Travis Brotherson is the plant engineer at Quad County Corn Processors, a 30 MMgy ethanol plant at Galva, Iowa. He first worked at the plant as a night operator and went back to school, earning a degree in aerospace engineering since he didn't think he'd be returning to the ethanol plant. When he finished his degree, he was talked into returning to the plant as its engineer and is glad he did.

Quad County, which started production in 2002, went without an on-staff engineer until Brotherson began in January 2009. His first dug into any and all data the plant had on file and went to work identifying and smoothing out process upsets. "Things were operating very well when I came in, but I think it helped us to understand things that had happened in the past to cause process upsets," he says. Another project on Brotherson's plate is to evaluate possible upgrades to the distillers grains line to increase the diversity of the products produced and tap into other feed markets.

On-staff engineers aren't very common in his area of northwest Iowa, Brotherson says, making Quad County, a smaller and somewhat older plant, a bit unusual. That having been said, Brotherson believes it would make sense for more ethanol plants to hire engineering help. "Seeing as how I am an engineer at an ethanol plant, I'm probably a little bit slanted," he adds with a laugh. EP

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