Tweaks and Major Steps

By Mike Bryan | June 13, 2011

Technological advancement, that’s what it’s been about since the first drop of fuel ethanol was produced. It’s about finding new ways to produce ethanol better, faster, cheaper, with less environmental impact. All one has to do is read this publication to begin to get a sense of the magnitude of change that is happening in this industry.

Many of the changes in production efficiency are tweaks to the system, made by the men and women who work in the plants every day. Changes that shave a penny here and a penny there off the cost of production, but over the years, these small steps, often nearly unperceivable on the surface, add up to major cost reductions. However, you can be assured that major step-changes are also happening in parallel with the tweaks.

For example, consider new cooling tower technologies that substantially reduce evaporative losses. Water loss from cooling towers accounts for 53 percent of a plant’s total water consumption and the dryer for the distillers grains accounts for 42 percent. Technology is being developed that could cost-effectively capture cooling tower and dryer water vapors, greatly reducing these evaporative losses. Additionally, ethanol plants are continually improving their ability to recycle various condensate streams. Water use in ethanol production has been reduced 48 percent in just the last 10 years. That’s a major economic and environmental step-change.

On another front, membrane technology will be increasingly incorporated into first-generation ethanol production and will certainly play a major role in second-generation ethanol. The removal of water in the ethanol process through the use of membranes will greatly reduce or eliminate the need for costly, energy-intensive evaporators, and will do so more cost effectively and with far less environmental impact.

In growing numbers of plants, monitoring the counts, health and activity of yeast is being upgraded from time-consuming microscopic analysis to automated systems that are faster and provide a broader range of analysis. Anaerobic digestion, while not a new technology, is helping improve the bottom line profits of some ethanol plants by turning thin stillage and other biomass materials into biogas to help power the plant.

So while plant personnel are continually tweaking the system to improve production efficiencies, other technologies are being created on a separate, but parallel, track that will provide major step changes for new and existing facilities. 

From reducing energy costs, to improving efficiencies, and creating a smaller and smaller environmental footprint, ethanol production has achieved, in a relatively short time span, what few other industries have. If necessity is the mother of invention, then the evolving needs of the ethanol industry have clearly demonstrated that those who work in plants and those who provide step-change technology, are up to the challenge.

That’s the way I see it.

Author: Mike Bryan
Chairman, BBI International
mbryan@bbiinternational.com