Checking out distillers grains in person
I’ve been writing about ethanol and distillers grains for almost two years now. Every day I add to my storehouse of knowledge. Oh, I know I’m far from being as knowledgeable as someone who actually works at an ethanol plant, or a company that serves the ethanol industry. My storehouse of knowledge is more like one of those tiny ceramic villages people decorate with at Christmas. It’s being filled by a dropper.
Most of what I’ve learned, has been sitting in my cubicle, talking on the phone to the experts. That’s an OK way to learn—I’ve always said, it’s not necessary for a journalist to be an expert, only find the experts and be able to write down what they tell you in an understandable and accurate way. This way it doesn’t matter where I am geographically as long as I have a telephone, internet and email. I can speak to or email people from Brazil just as easily as I can Washington, D.C., all from my office in little old Grand Forks, N.D.
My favorite way to learn, however, is by actually visiting ethanol plants. There I can see the sights and smell the smells of what I write about. (I have not found the smells, by the way, to be at all offensive.) I’ve been lucky enough to visit and tour three ethanol plants as well as the National Corn-to-Ethanol-Research Center where there was learning a’ plenty.
Take distillers grains. It’s one thing to write about the coproduct coming out of the backend of an ethanol plant and it’s another thing entirely to see and feel it. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, by the way.
I want to learn more about different types of distillers grains. For example, what are the differences nutritionally and visually between distillers grains made from corn and distillers grains produced at wheat, sorghum or even barley ethanol plants? Someday, I’d like to see samples of each, side by side.
I remember the first time I worked for this company, back in 2006. I was writing a story about fractionated corn and a source sent me plastic baggies of the various fractions. Frankly, I didn’t see the point until I had my hands on corn germ and compared it to bran. I could have written the story without actually seeing the differences, but it certainly enhanced my understanding.
What about the coproduct coming out of isobutanol plants, such as Gevo’s retrofitted ethanol plants? That product isn’t really distillers grains, as it doesn’t fit the definition of a co-product of the ethanol production process. Will that definition be changed? If not, what will Gevo find to do with the coproduct?
That’s another question that’s been on my mind for a while. I’m a reporter, I’m full of questions! We all know that distillers grains are a big part of helping keep ethanol production profitable. And, if a company can come up with new coproducts or byproducts, all the better, right? Diversify, diversify, diversify! So what about cellulosic ethanol production? Yes, the industry is talking about coproducts and byproducts for advanced ethanol, but will it be as profitable as the already established market for distillers grains? I certainly hope so, but only time will tell the answer to that question.
In the meantime, I’m planning my next trip to an ethanol plant. Here’s crossing my fingers they let me get my fingers dirty in distillers grains.