Plastics Cozy Up to Distillers Grains

Pilot testing gives new product the green light
By Holly Jessen | January 16, 2012

It’s a concept that has positives for both the ethanol industry and the plastics industry. Can a Nebraska company process wet distillers grains into a biobased resin to replace conventional petroleum-based resins? Laurel BioComposite LLC says yes.

The company is proving the concept at a pilot plant in rural Coleridge while moving ahead with plans to break ground this year on a full-scale production facility just a few miles away in Laurel, Neb. The pilot plant, currently inhabiting a 500-square-foot area in a machine shed of a farmer-investor, produces about 250 pounds of the biomaterial an hour and could easily be scaled up to 1,000 pounds an hour, says Lou Luedtke, startup manager.

The pilot plant started up the end of November and the trademarked BioRes produced is being shipped to customers for testing. Preliminary results have shown that the product is odorless and can be used at levels of 20 to 40 percent in injection-molded plastics, providing a direct replacement for petroleum-based products. “It’s very feasible,” Luedtke tells EPM. “It is going into the product very nicely, it flows well and the injection molders are very pleased with it.”

BioRes has applications for use in the plastics, polypropylene and polyethylene industries, which use billions of pounds of petroleum-based resins. The shipping, lawn and garden, agriculture and automotive industries are especially well-suited to take advantage of it. The concept has been generating a lot of interest, he says, with inquiries about the produce from all over the U.S. as well as places such as Italy and Germany.

The first production run at the pilot plant produced BioRes pellets for a major customer that will test it for enhanced adhesive applications for home products. Customer test results are being compiled in a database, which shows a 10 percent increase in stiffness and tensile modulus compared to plastics containing conventional fillers such as calcium carbonate and talc. Also, utilizing patent pending BioRes results in plastic products with a lower specific gravity. The kicker, however, is that the product is priced the same as or slightly lower than traditional petroleum-based resins. “They’ll actually save money with our material and be able to offer a bio content without charging a premium for it,” he says.

During the next phase of the project, the full-scale Laurel BioComposite plant will have the capability of producing 48 million pounds of BioRes yearly. It will run 24/7 with four shifts and will likely employ 20 people, including management. “Creating jobs there is going to be a major benefit,” he says. “Not everybody can stay on a farm and this gives them the opportunity to go to college and come back and work in the community.”

The benefits for the ethanol industry are big. The facility will provide an additional market for distillers grains from the three ethanol plants located within a 45-mile radius that produce a total of 345 million pounds of distillers grains. Future plans for the pilot plant include the possibility of putting it on skids and transporting it to cooperating ethanol plants to produce BioRes onsite.

The BioRes process involves adding propriety chemicals to a mixture of wet distillers grains and water, Luedtke says. After drying, the material is milled and pelletized. While the pilot plant sends its material to another facility for pelletizing, the full-scale plant will pelletize the product onsite. The company does have customers that are studying BioRes in a powder form, however most potential customers are accustomed to using resin pellets. The product does not contain toxic compounds and is composed of 60 to 80 percent biomaterial.

The project is made possible through a combination of equity and debt financing. Major investors include Kearney Area Ag Producers Alliance members acting through the newly created KAAPA Investments LLC. If all went as planned, financing was to wrap up at the end of the year, Luedtke said in early December. “That would allow us to start construction of the plant in the spring and be ready to operate it by this time next year.”

Total cost has been estimated at $16.8 million. That’s actually a nearly $2 million decrease from the project’s initial cost estimates. “The pilot plant has given us some significant information so we can take out some of the redundancy that we thought we needed,” Luedtke explains.

The estimated cost of the project isn’t the only thing that has changed since the investigation stage. In July, the company terminated its licensing agreement with LignoTech, a New Zealand-based company that has a patent for a similar process. “We discovered that the material that the LignoTech process created was a dark color and had an odor to it and it was objectionable,” Luedtke tells EPM. “We’re continuing in a working agreement with them for the potential of other uses of their process, but relative to the distillers grains market, we’ve found an alternative process that we developed ourselves.”

Author: Holly Jessen
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
(701) 738-4946
hjessen@bbiinternational.com