Labs Look to Vendors and Each Other for Answers

By Tom Bryan | December 06, 2012

In the weeks leading up to the completion of this issue, our editors interviewed personnel at multiple U.S. ethanol plant labs, the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center and several lab- and data-focused service companies to deliver on this month’s important lab innovation theme.

Tim Portz, our executive editor, stepped inside the well-equipped laboratory at Corn Plus LLLP, in Winnebago, Minn., where he met lab manager Courtney Trask, the subject of this month’s Q&A. In “Keeping Corn Plus in the Sweet Spot,” on page 35, Trask says monitoring and adjusting the performance of an ethanol plant has become a truly data-driven process. She tells us that vendors such as HPLC software reps often guide lab personnel through routine troubleshooting and data analyses. And she verifies that the U.S. ethanol industry—if Corn Plus is typical—continues to make capital investments in new lab equipment, despite tight margins. In fact, Trask says, her biggest challenge right now is not a lack of new technology, but getting comfortable with all of the new equipment and practices in her laboratory. “Our situation is difficult right now because we have implemented so many new things at the plant in the past few months,” she tells Portz.

Trask will, of course, lean on her vendors for support and guidance as she continues to master new gadgets and roll out new procedures in her space. Likewise, service providers like Efficient Green Energy are also helping lab personnel bridle new technology and harness better data. As Holly Jessen reports in her page-30 feature, “Measurable Success,” the Iowa-based company is enabling producers to capture and cleanse data, train personnel and benchmark their lab practices against competing facilities.

NCERC’s Sabrina Trupia says successful ethanol plant labs are built around three intersecting components: “performance, understanding and communication.” Each component, especially the latter, must be methodical and unremitting. After all, even the best data integrity practices fall flat when internal communication breaks down.

External communication is important, too. This is a competitive industry, yet metered collaboration between ethanol plant labs is tolerated, and even encouraged by some producers. In addition to Green Energy’s laboratory benchmarking program, companies like PhibroChem, through its Ethanol Performance Group, are engaging lab personnel in training programs that include analytical round robins between multiple facilities. It’s clear that, in today’s environment, data-driven performance strategies require lean producers to build support groups that include vendors, service providers and—now, more than ever—each other.