Measurable Success

An in-house ethanol plant laboratory staffed with qualified, well-trained personnel is an indispensable edge in tough times.
By Holly Jessen | December 06, 2012

From a square-footage point of view, a typical ethanol plant laboratory barely registers in the overall scheme of things. It’s a clear case of looks being deceiving, however, because its impact on the bottom line is anything but trivial.

Kevin Howes, plant manager of Homeland Energy Solutions LLC, views the in-house laboratory at the Lawler, Iowa, ethanol plant as a crucial piece in the company’s success. “We view the lab as the third leg of the operational stool, the other two being maintenance and production,” he says. “All three are a necessity to have a functional operation. … If one is missing or broken you will fall.”

Improving ethanol plant yield begins with data gathered in the lab, putting the lab manager and lab technician, who work full time at Homeland, in the front lines of protecting profitability. “At today’s corn prices, if you could improve your ethanol yield by 0.01 gallon of ethanol per bushel of corn ground, a 100 MMgy ethanol plant could positively impact their bottom line by $1 million,” he says. “Everything from a simple slurry pH measurement, to fermentation [high-performance liquid chromatography] HPLC readings, through moisture measurement in the final denatured ethanol can impact this number.”

The way to get there is through data integrity or placing the utmost importance on quality control. “The lab must generate timely, accurate information in order for the right decisions to be made to maximize the plants profitability,” Howes says. Making sure lab instruments are calibrated correctly to give proper readings can have a big impact but is often overlooked, he added.

Data integrity is crucial at a research facility like NCERC but it’s no less important at production plants, says Sabrina Trupia, assistant director of biological research at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center. She makes the argument that the ethanol plant lab’s ability to positively influence profitability is linked to whether it is staffed with qualified and well-trained employees. That’s going to be the company’s first line of defense in keeping yield at optimal levels, Trupia says. For example, a lab that utilizes the right tests and recognizes a stuck fermentor early on won’t have to add additional antibiotics, yeast or enzymes, which can be costly. Not catching it on time could result in lower quality distillers grains as well as a loss of efficiency. “In this day and age, where it is a really knife edge where a plant makes it or breaks it, it’s even worse,” she says. Howes agrees, adding that, “In today’s environment of very tight crush margins, there is no room for error.”

Susan Scherlinger, the lab coordinator at Show Me Ethanol LLC, a 55 MMgy plant in Carrolton, Mo., also talked about the lab’s role in holding the line on input costs and yield. Additionally, the lab provides checks and balances to ensure the company doesn’t send out off-spec product to its customers, she says. 

Having a quality control program in place is essential, says Wayne Mattsfield, manager of analytical and microbiological services for the Ethanol Performance Group, part of PhibroChem. He spoke about the topic in October at the fifth annual Fuel Ethanol Laboratory Conference, put on by Midland Scientific Inc. He recommends the use of data quality objectives, a process in use by industries and government organizations. It helps labs determine what’s needed in data quality and the number of data samples, based on internal measurements of precision and accuracy. In some cases, the data might not need to be so precise, while other situations require careful accuracy.  “If you don’t have a [quality control] program, there’s really no way to determine that—how good the data happens to be—and therefore, you may not be able to monitor processes well,” he said.

Beefing It Up
Ethanol producers searching for ways to improve their lab operations have a variety of options. NCERC, which is located 20 miles from downtown St. Louis, offers training for ethanol plant lab employees. Wherever training is completed, it is best accomplished in three stages, Trupia says. Initially, it’s about exposure to lab procedures, followed by active demonstration and, finally, hands-on training. She has identified three intersecting components for successful lab staff: performance, understanding and communication.

Performance refers to their ability to put out reliable analysis and data with fewer samples needing to be re-run and less time spent on each test, Trupia says. “If they are qualified, they know how to do it, they know how to do it well, they make fewer mistakes and they know that the data is reliable,” she says.

Understanding the process is another significant factor in ethanol plant lab success. To illustrate this, Trupia recounts working with interns at NCERC. Yes, they might be able to complete tasks in the laboratory after someone else sets everything up for them. But without understanding how the instrument works, what the data is used for and even the ethanol production process, they are at a disadvantage. “They can’t just push buttons,” she said, adding without understanding the process, a lab worker is unable to recognize or troubleshoot any problems that develop.

Finally, lab staff must be able to communicate what’s discovered in the lab to operations. That means passing on the appropriate information, including more than just data values, she said. A past NCERC intern completed a master’s thesis on improving communication between the lab and the ethanol plant and concluded that in order to respond quickly to changes in plant conditions, communication must be constant.

Scherlinger agrees that training is very important. She has been working at Show Me Ethanol since the plant started up in 2008, and was promoted from within because she had previous lab experience. The company is very good about sending her to conferences and training sessions and makes it clear that lab is a vital part of its daily operations. “They come to you with a lot of questions,” she says.

Iowa-based Efficient Green Energy also aims to help the ethanol industry improve lab operations. The startup company was launched in June, at the 2012 International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo, on the premise that lab data is vital to improving yield.  “We've seen a lot of variation in industry practice and firmly believe the companies who focus on the insight lab data provides are the ones who continue to succeed in our current operating environment,” says Brian Steenhard, president of the company.

The company sees a gap in the ethanol industry’s ability to harness lab data to make operational decisions. A crucial factor is the lab’s ability to capture accurate data. In fact, one of the first things done, when beginning work with a new ethanol plant, is to go through the facility’s records as far back as they exist, scrubbing it for errors. This helps identify meaningful relationships. “Without accurate data, it’s hard to make good, sound operational decisions,” he says, “so our first step in the process is just to make sure that the data is cleaned up and as accurate as possible.”

Efficient Green Energy also provides training for lab staff. All lab staff, whether they are new employees or seasoned lab workers, can benefit from additional training, Steenhard says, adding that there’s a varied amount of expertise at work in ethanol plant labs. That can range from employing lab managers or technicians to simply utilizing operational staff, or some combination of all three. The company’s training program focuses on helping employees understand the theory behind various lab tests and the path to optimal yield improvement, not just how to complete the tests. 

On the data management side, Efficient Green Energy can offer ethanol production plants Ferm Up, its trademarked web-based data collection software. The company has also started a benchmarking program, specifically for ethanol plant labs. The ethanol industry is still evolving and it’s valuable to have the opportunity to talk to others in the industry about things such as chemical trials and recipe variations.  “The industry needs those types of relationships, so that we can continue to promote ethanol as a viable alternative to gasoline,” he says.

Mattsfield recommends that companies take advantage of training opportunities through local technical colleges or universities as well as attending relevant conferences and seminars. Like other companies, Phibro offers training at the plant or in the company’s St. Paul, Minn., location. He emphasizes the positives of participating in proficiency sample programs, which can help an ethanol plant lab identify areas for improvement. One example is a round robin, in which a sample is split up among several different participants. Each lab analyzes the sample and the data is pooled for statistical examination, which reveals to each participant how close they came to the statistical mean. Phibro recently started a HPLC round robin among ethanol producers. “It’s just another way for laboratories to check to see how they fare against another laboratory statistically,” he says.

Overall, he’s impressed with the ethanol plant lab staff he has met. “They are always eager to expand their knowledge and improve their processes,” he says. The bottom line is that every lab should have an ongoing aim for advancement. “There is a place for improvement in any laboratory, whether it be a well-established laboratory in industry or governmental laboratory,” he said.

Author: Holly Jessen
Features Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine