Q&A: A Man of Science Wears Many Hats

Eric Sumner’s lifelong fascination with science spans from his youth to the cutting edge of ethanol plant bacterial control and the growing importance of coproducts for long-term industry viability.
By Tim Portz | April 16, 2013

Helping ethanol producers control bacteria without the use of antibiotics is the daily goal of Eric Sumner, global market development manager at DuPont Industrial Biosciences. Sumner also  serves as president of the Distillers Grains Technology Council, a voice for the continued advocacy and market development efforts for this vital feed coproduct. 

How long have you had an interest in science?
I trace my interest in science back to growing up as a kid in rural Chatham, Pa. I practically lived outdoors and when I was unlucky enough to be closed up in the house I would crack open the set of World Book encyclopedias we had on the shelf. Over the years as a boy I read through every one of those, from A to Z. The knowledge I gained from those volumes taught me there was a much bigger world out there beyond our small town. Science and engineering were just one aspect of a world that was out there to be discovered.

How much time do the lab managers and plant operators you work with spend keeping bacterial outbreaks at bay?
Our customers devote a lot of time and effort toward getting the most out of their plants. Today’s ethanol producer faces many challenges in trying to maintain profitability. Controlling bacteria and their potential negative effects are just one aspect of that overall goal. Fortunately, due to our innovative chlorine dioxide-based technology, our customers don’t need to spend much time on controlling bacteria, freeing them up to address other needs they may have in their operation.

If one common-sized fermentation vessel becomes stuck because of bacterial outbreak, what is the lost revenue potential?
Individual, severe batch infections can be a real problem. If they are bad enough they can cost upwards of $50,000 or more in losses. In addition to lost ethanol production, other serious effects of an acute upset result in continued high bacteria levels, high lactic and acetic acid in backset, high sugars and related problems in downstream operations, as well as a huge distraction away from other plant improvement efforts. Ongoing variation in performance is a much bigger problem and one of its root causes is ongoing bacteria presence in feedstock or the plant itself. It’s not uncommon for a typically sized plant, with fermentors sized around 800,000 gallons to produce about 13.7 percent ethanol on average from a batch fermentation. That’s by weight. But if they are able to eliminate variation in performance caused by chronic background contamination, they could produce 13.9 percent or more on average per batch. For a typical 100 million gallon per year plant this equates to over 1.5 million gallons per year in additional production. That’s almost $4 million per year. 

Can you walk me through the process of how considering a certain chemical approach to solving a problem goes from a concept to commercial deployment?
DuPont is a science company.  We work collaboratively to find sustainable, innovative, market-driven solutions to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, making lives better, safer, and healthier for people everywhere. We employ Six Sigma methodology to help us identify and develop solutions that will help the biofuels industry to be as productive as possible. DuPont FermaSure XL is a perfect example of this. We start with the customer. Voice of the customer, or VOC as we call it, helps us understand our customer’s needs. From there we bring our resources to bear on the challenges the industry faces. We have resources based at regional technology centers around the world who work to develop solutions to these challenges. Once we have a concept, we work with customers to test and fine-tune the offering until it meets their needs. Then it’s a matter of launching the product commercially in a way that makes the most sense. We have many such projects under way today and one soon to be launched.

What is driving the push for antibiotic-free solutions to bacterial outbreaks? 
In my opinion, it is driven by an effort to minimize antibiotic use. We all recognize that antibiotic resistant bacterial strains are a threat to our health. Resistance is also a concern in ethanol production.  We have numerous strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria we have isolated in our laboratory. Most of these were brought to our attention by prospective customers who were not able to control them within their facility using virginiamycin or other antibiotics.

Can you talk about the role that the Distillers Grains Technology Council plays within the industry?
Our mission at the DGTC is to support the distilling industry in the area of DGS (distillers grains with soluables). This is focused in three main areas. The DGTC works to serve the industry by providing educational and technical support to member producers and downstream users of DGS. We also work to advocate the use of DGS. We do that by being the principle voice on nutrition, safety and regulatory issues affecting DGS usage. Finally, the DGTC works to add value by encouraging, supporting research and promoting new and existing markets for distiller grains.

The contribution made to an ethanol plant’s bottom line by coproducts continues to grow. Is the industry maximizing the full potential of the feedstock it receives?
The industry’s history is likely the best predictor of our future. So with that in mind, I would suggest we still should have significant opportunities ahead of us to extract additional value from the feedstocks currently in use.

Where do you think the industry will continue to find revenue opportunities on the coproduct side of their business?
Certainly opportunities for value extraction will continue to be identified and integrated into today’s business model. A perfect example of this is today’s movement toward corn oil extraction—it’s becoming the norm versus the exception. This is just one example of how producers have developed more value from the basic feedstock. Before corn oil, DGS were an early value-added product for producers. In Brazil, we see producers separating yeast as a coproduct. Such opportunities will continue to be identified and leveraged until we approach maximum value extraction.

What is the most exciting thing happening in the biofuels space right now, from a scientific perspective?
To me, the single most exciting development is the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol. In 2014 and 2015, we will see the first two to three commercial cellulosic ethanol facilities begin production. These plants represent the culmination of decades of work by scientists and engineers. It is a very exciting time for our industry.