In Minnesota, ICM is rolling out a new product category for the US ethanol industry this week, a companion to ethanol, distillers grains, corn oil, and CO2. And, perhaps, a window into a future of a whole range of specialty products with higher pricing profiles.
It’s called UltraMax, which sounds like something you’d pick up at a GNC as a diet supplement, and in many ways that’s a good way to start thinking about it.
Or, think “Vegemite for Contented Chickens” Just as generations of Australians have been raised as Healthy Little Vegemites after consuming the high-yeast, high-protein product under that trade name — why not try the same approach in raising chickens?
The overall technology is known as TS4 – Thin Stillage Solids Separation Systems. The first installation of Phase One is going on now at “a major ethanol plant” with start-up expected in Q3. It’s all part of what we identified in yesterday’s Digest, a theme for the US ethanol industry at the annual Fuel Ethanol Workshops of “efficiency, efficiency, efficiency” — finding more value in the process streams.
20-40% more than DDGs
“It’s a peanut butter-like consistency,” ICM’s Steve Hartig told The Digest. But, there’s one thing about this product that’s not all that unusual, and that’s the payback period, which reportedly hits that 2-3 year payback period that ethanol producers prefer. The costs are in “the few millions”, and think total project time of 6 months with only a few days required to tie-in the old ethanol plant systems to this new technology after construction and every day operations continue in parallel for the bulk of the project.
And, a 100Mgy ethanol plant could produce 15,000 tons of this material, sell it for 20-40% more than dried distillers grains, and without changing the price obtained for DDGs. The trials are on with chickens and the results look good.
But there’s more on offer than a new product category — as revolutionary as that it. There’s energy efficiency and de-bottlenecking. This technology could open up a route to higher production capacity.
“Every plant runs as hard as they can, dryers are expensive items,” noted Hartig. “It’s not unusual to see plants bottlenecked at the drying stage; If you need 10 percent more evaporation of dryer capacity, you can get there with this.”
What it does
The technology removes the suspended solids from the leftover liquid stream at the back end of a corn ethanol plant (after distillation to remove the ethanol), known as whole stillage.
The Stillage Back story
Whole stillage (typically) goes through a decanter-style centrifuge to separates out some solids (i.e., wet cake to be sold as wet distillers grains). The remaining liquid, known as centrate, and some is sent back to the front of the plant, and some (now known as thin stillage) is concentrated via evaporation to remove water, then corn oil is removed via a centrifuge, and the remainder is further dried to make a syrup which is added to distillers grains.
Which is an awful lot of energy-intensive work to produce a low-value additive for distiller’s grains. In the end, it’s really more of a waste product, processed to avoid a costly waste stream exiting the plant.
Phase One and Phase Two
Phase One of this process uses a combination of a preparation technology and a special centrifuge for efficient separation, called a Sedicanter. Flottweg is the exclusive Sedicanter provider for ICM in biofuels. This is used in combination with a new ICM process which allows the centrifuge to process at a much higher feed rate than previously possible with higher capture efficiencies, resulting in reduced capital costs.
Phase Two, which is in the final stages of development, adds further mechanical separation processes aimed at the liquid stream from Phase One. This is in the final stages of development and ICM expects to have an initial installation later this year.
What You Get
This new process produces two streams:
1. A liquid stream containing about 95% of the water, which has a significant reduction in suspended solids level that goes to the evaporators. This stream has a much lower viscosity than the normal stream. As a result, this liquid stream improves evaporator operations and provides greater drying throughput.
2. A solids stream has the rest of the suspended solids in it. This stream can be separately dried to create a high protein distillers yeast product. This stream can also be sold as a wet feed product. This stream can also be recombined with the distillers grains prior to drying and mixing, if the plant goal is only operational improvements.
The 5 problems with thin stillage today
Several issues currently arise from these streams:
1. Depending on the plant operation and capacity, a number of plants produce excess syrup, which cannot be recombined with the distillers grains due to mechanical or Feed Tag limitations. This syrup must be sold as Condensed Distillers Solubles, typically at a very low price, which costs the plant value as compared to selling it at distillers grains price.
2. You can cake up the evaporator over time, bottom line. Both organic (i.e., fats, proteins, carbohydrates) and inorganic (i.e., salts) solids in the syrup build up on the evaporator surfaces causing fouling. This causes issues in plant operation and can require a reduction in rate until the plant shuts down to clean the evaporators, which takes time, money and uses aggressive chemicals.
3. Either evaporator or dryer capacity can be a bottleneck in the plant, limiting flow rate increases.
4. Some plants have an imbalance in particle size distribution from the grinding process, resulting in excess fine particles in the slurry stream. This can also limit evaporator operation (if not recovered by the decanter) as the particles increase viscosity in the syrup stream.
5. The lightest of suspended solids in the stillage are a yeast-rich high protein stream that can be an added value feed ingredient, but typically mixed with the distillers grains to capture that price level only.
The 4 Reasons the technology is Valuable
TS4 has four key performance characteristics to lift yield and reduce cost.
1. Reduces fouling of evaporators.
2. Removes more water through the evaporators and ability to dry to a greater level in the dryer versus using the steam or natural gas fired dryers.
3. This reduces dryer load to provide further capacity and/or reduced energy use.
4. This produces UltraMax which is ICM’s brand for the high-protein feed product. Total volume in a 100 mln gpy plant would be about 15,000 tons and is expected to bring significant added value. ICM has conducted feeding trials for chicken digestibility and other types of animal feeding trials are currently underway. The data from the feed trials indicate that UltraMax brings significant value to a plant, compared to distillers grains. The volume is relatively small, which does not impact the standard distillers grains versus specifications.
That’s phase one. The 3 goals from phase two are:
1. Further debottlenecking of evaporators and dryers along with potential energy reductions.
2. Increased corn oil recovery, thus improving plant profitability.
3. Potential fermentation improvements, if installed on the backset recycled water.
The Bottom Line – a change in thinking, not just thinning
If you look at DDGs, they can be regarded as an imperfect animal feed. There’s too much fiber for pigs and chickens, and too much protein for cows.
The answer lies in separation technology, marketing and product development. This pile to the chickens and pigs, this to the cattle. What we’re likely to see, before that, is a shift from thinking in terms only of big commodities — like ethanol volume or DDGs volume. Just as plants started off thinking in terms of big commodity inputs — any energy was good energy as long as its cheap energy. Feedstock was feedstock.
But now, plants have learned — through the Renewable Fuel Standard, ironically — that certain types of energy and feedstock combinations can qualify ethanol for advanced biofuels RINs. Some plants are discovering that producing cellulosic ethanol from corn fiber opens up a pathway to $4.33 fuels instead of $2.00 fuels.
So, it’s not just about another product category. It’s about an opportunity to add value to a plant by designing specialized products that are optimized for target customer sets. You might find one plant optimizing for protein, when near hog and chicken country. Another one less worried about fiber, when near cattle country. Another one maximizing every ounce of cellulosic ethanol and working hard to get the energy usage down when near California.
A network of optimized plants, tuned to the geographies they serve. So there you have it, UlrtaMax and its considerable implications.