As the economy continues to decline and financial experts say we’re headed into a recession, American families struggle to put both food on the table and gas in the tank. 2008 saw a 36% increase in milk prices compared to 2007, and the national average price for a gallon of unleaded gas peaked at $4.11 in July. These circumstances have some people asking “Do I feed my kids, or my car?”
Although research released by the American Farm Bureau Federation says that the climb in food costs are due to the high price of crude oil, many people are quick to point a finger at the ethanol industry because of the misconception that most of America’s corn is going into ethanol production, rather than food production.
Technology exists, however, that makes it possible for the same corn used to produce ethanol can also be used to make a variety of food-grade products. Through a process called fractionation, each portion of the kernel is separated and can be made into a variety of valuable products. ICM Inc. has made it its mission to help end the food vs. fuel debate by providing ethanol plants solutions and technology to produce food and fuel.
Fractionation makes it possible
Dave Vander Griend, president and CEO of ICM, Inc., could be described as a pioneer in trying to discover ways to settle the food vs. fuel debate. “My main message is there shouldn’t be a food vs. fuel debate. We’ve known all along that we can create food while producing fuel; we just had to develop the technology that would present this opportunity to the ethanol producer,” Vander Griend says.
The key to making Vander Griend’s vision of producing food and fuel at the same time was fractionation. Fractionation is a mechanical separation of the kernel into three fractions: endosperm, bran and germ. The endosperm, which is about 83% of the kernel, is fermented to produce ethanol, while the other 17% of the kernel can be used to make animal feed, corn oil, syrup or a protein powder.
More than four years of research and development went into ICM’s six-solution fractionation system. The step model includes 1) dry corn fractionation, 2) solid fuel combustion, 3) food-grade germ-oil extraction, 4) food-grade protein extraction from germ, 5) high-value single-cell protein feed from syrup and 6) ethanol from fiber.
Doug Rivers, director of research and development at ICM, Inc. suggests, adding the system on to existing facilities because of the lower capital investment compared to building a plant from the ground up. “The dry fractionation system can be put on any traditional dry corn mill. One of the advantages is it’s a stepwise process and if you put the fractionation upfront, then you only have to make around a $40 million investment. And as you go on, you can decide to invest more; you don’t have to put in all of the six steps at once,” Rivers says.
The first two steps are necessary, however. The dry fractionation provides the fractions that each of the following steps requires to produce the food or feed co-product. The combustion provides the power for the boilers where the ethanol is brewed. The solid fuel combustor gives the ethanol producer the option of what type of fuel to use. A plant may burn wood chips, stover, corn cobs or even the syrup produced from the initial fractionation.
Besides adding the option to make value-added co-products, fractionation has another benefit. It reduces the level of non-fermentables that go into the fermentation vessel, maximizing a facility’s ethanol production capacity. An existing 110 million gallon/year-plant can increase its capacity to 130 million gallon/year by adding a fractionation system.
Food grade solutions
After the parts of the kernel are fractioned off, the bran and germ are left over while the endosperm is fermented. The germ is high in oil and protein, which can be separated from each other providing a variety of food-grade options for consumers. The germ oil extraction technology requires further processing at this point and must be marketed to corn oil refinery centers.