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New Solutions to Old Problems

Short shelf life and difficult handling characteristics deter ethanol producers from dealing with wet distillers grains.

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In business we must take the good with the bad, and rarely does something truly good come along without a hitch. Ethanol producers found this to be true when they discovered that wet distillers grains (WDG) is not only difficult to handle, but also has a shorter shelf life, resulting in a lower valued product.

Since the ethanol boom began, around the late 1990s, producers have found a market for the co-product. WDG, or wet cake, is more palatable and nutritious for dairy cows and cattle than dried distillers grains (DDG), and is the preferred feed of many beef and dairy producers. It also saves the ethanol facility money and energy because there is no need for drying and related equipment. Although the product is a highly marketable feed, it has its downsides - its shelf life and handling characteristics make it hardly an ideal commodity.

WDG can spoil in as little as three days, if untreated and left out in humid conditions. The acidic pH of the product, which consists of about 65% moisture, makes it corrosive to even stainless steel. It also has a tendency to clump together and stick to material handling and loading equipment.

Thanks to innovative thinkers in this industry who are dedicated to smoothing out the road bumps ethanol producers run into, solutions to the short shelf life and difficult handling characteristics have been discovered.

Shelf Life Extender

Although WDG is rapidly becoming a feed favorite of beef and dairy producers, it hasn't always been that way. In the past, farm operators have been cautious because it's known to spoil quickly. Dan Weiland, regional sales manager at Alltech, an industry leader in animal feed, explains how detrimental a poor- quality feed can be to a dairy herd.

"Mold and mycotoxins can have a negative impact on cow health and decrease milk production," Weiland says.

Becky Timmons, director of applications research and quality assurance, sheds some light on why wet cake is so conducive to spoiling.

"It's mainly a combination of the available water and the environment it's stored in. It's usually dumped into a trough or on the ground, and since organisms are abundant there, the sugar, other nutrients, and the ideal pH make it a good medium for bacterial growth," Timmons says.

Even before the ethanol boom hit, Alltech was searching for a way to provide ethanol producers with a preservative that would make wet cake more appealing to dairies and beef producers. In 2002 Alltech senior applications specialist, Michelle Stevens, began researching and developing what later became known as CakeGuard.

CakeGuard protects wet cake from the losses in palatability and nutritive value caused by mold growth and dangerous levels of toxicity from mycotoxins. The feed preservative is applied with either a spray or in a mixer and takes the form of syrup, added after production, or integrated into the distillation process.
Stevens immediately recognized the advantages of CakeGuard during her studies.

"Without the presence of CakeGuard, in our trials we observed spoilage in about three days when it's humid, and in dry conditions it took about seven days," Steven says.

In trial studies conducted at Utica Energy, wet cake that had been treated with CakeGuard at a low usage rate showed increased stability to 10 to 14 days.

Longer stability was achieved with higher usage rates. Benefits of CakeGuard use are an increased shelf-life, allowing distilleries to store and sell the product for a longer period of time. Weiland says that WDG producers are able to serve more dairies and beef operations because they no longer have to empty an entire truckload at one industrial sized farm. In the past, smaller farms were never able to consume the wet cake fast enough before spoiling occurred. CakeGuard makes it possible to provide a feed that won't spoil for up to two weeks.

Alltech's breakthrough product is used in nearly a third of the ethanol plants in Wisconsin and is steadily gaining popularity throughout the Midwest, according to Weiland.

Conveying with Confidence

Each commodity, whether it is soybean, wheat, coal or WDG, presents its own unique set of problems. Some are abrasive and quickly wear down conveying equipment, while others are sticky and slow down or plug up the conveying process. WDG is not only sticky, but also corrosive to metal. It's important for feed mills and ethanol producers to use specialized conveyors, built for the facility's particular application.

Tramco, Inc. has been providing the agricultural community with custom made conveyors since 1967. "We've been in the business for 40 years. We have qualified engineers that really sit down with customers and we help them with more than just building," Steve Cloud, President of Tramco, proudly says. The company built roughly 240 new conveyors for the ethanol industry alone in 2007 alone, according to Cloud.

When Tramco's engineers assess a facility to determine what type of conveyor would be the best for their application, many factors are taken into consideration. Tramco outside sales engineer Tim Schmitz lists a series of determinants.

"You have to look at the whole picture from the installation to where it's going to go. Will it be horizontal or going through a tunnel? How tight is the space? We also take into consideration what the commodity is and at what capacity the conveyor will run, which is measured in bushels or tons per hour or day," Schmitz says.

Cloud and Schmitz both recommend to anyone handling WDG to use stainless steel conveyors. Stainless steel is a high-quality metal that maintains its natural integrity for a longer period of time than other metals do. The co-product coming out of the distillery is very corrosive and even stainless steel will show signs of tarnishing after a period of time. However, Cloud is aware of ethanol facilities that have been using the same conveyors for eight to 10 years without a problem.

As is true with all industrial agricultural equipment, maintenance is the key to running an effective conveyor. Schmitz warns that facility maintenance crews should pay special attention to the conveyor's chains. Running a chain too tight could cause it to wear out quickly. A loose chain can be problematic as well, depending on the size of the load. The larger the amount of product being moved daily, the more often one should check the chain tension. Especially on new installations and when a chain has been replaced.

Cloud advises plant managers to carefully monitor the speed of the conveyor. Slower is better, and will help the conveyor last longer. Be conscious of the product you're moving. Stickier, wetter substances, like corn gluten or WDG, should not be conveyed at a high speed, as it will plug the conveyor, potentially causing long-term damage.

Although loading and handling WDG is no walk in the park, high demand for the co-product makes it worthwhile for ethanol facilities to work out the kinks and use preservatives to extend its shelf life.

Biofuels in the News

Context Releases Renewable Fuels Findings

A new white paper just released by The Context Network exposes the impacts of the government's Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) on agriculture over the next 14 years. The report evaluates three time brackets within that 14-year period and it assesses whether requirements of the law could be met. It also appraises the actual impact in each time period and for specific feedstocks contributing to biofuel production.

Context Network senior consultant Jim Murphy was the principal author of this white paper. "Rather than simply assuming all provisions of EISA would be met, this report is based on our analysis of what volumes of different biofuels will actually be produced and the actual impact on corn, soybean oil, sorghum and cellulosic feedstock, demand, total acres, crop prices and the effect on net returns per acre," Murphy said.

Murphy noted that cornstarch-based ethanol has more potential than some may think, but that biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol face considerable economic challenges.

Research Confirms Benefits of High Blends

The results of a Minnesota State University-Mankato and University of Minnesota study confirmed what the recent "Optimal Ethanol Blend-Level Investigation" found, that higher blends of ethanol are practical in today's vehicle fleet.

The research unveiled that E20 presents no materials compatibility issues for current vehicles or fuel dispensing equipment.

This corroborates the results of the "optimal blend" study, released in December, which found that blends of ethanol beyond 10 percent perform well in standard, non-flex-fuel vehicles.

That research also found the conventional wisdom about ethanol's BTU-content mileage penalty to be unfounded.

Not only did the ethanol blends of E20 and E30 perform much better than predicted on an energy-content basis, but in three of the four vehicles tested, these mid-range blends actually offered increased fuel economy over straight gasoline.

Bush Names Biodiesel Most Promising Fuel

At the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference, (WIREC) President Bush called biodiesel the most promising renewable fuel for helping to meet renewable fuels standards.

President Bush said he is confident that biodiesel will help supply the United States with 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by the year 2022, which is mandatory under the renewable fuels standard.

"Last year, we produced 450 million gallons of biodiesel. That's up 80 percent from 2006. Today there are more than 650 biodiesel fueling stations in America. There are hundreds of fleet operators that use biodiesel to fuel their trucks, and that's just the beginning of what is going to be a substantial change in our driving habits," said President Bush.

EPIC Announces New Executive Director

The Ethanol Promotion and Information Council (EPIC) has named Toni Nuernberg as the new executive director. She will provide new leadership for EPIC members, the industry and mission to promote the benefits of ethanol through education and promotional programs.

"I'm honored to serve as EPIC's executive director, and I'm excited to begin working for a group that is so dedicated and knowledgeable about the ethanol industry-and its mission to bring more ethanol to consumers across the country," said Nuernberg.

Biofuel Events

April 14-15, 2008
Low Carbon Fuels Expo
Sacramento Convention Center
Sacramento, CA
(800) 993-0302

April 15-17, 2008
International Biomass 08 Conference & Trade Show
Minneapolis Convention Center
Minneapolis, MN
(605) 226-9058

April 21-24, 2008
USDA BioPreferred Showcase and Training
Anaheim Convention Center
Anaheim, CA

May 7-8, 2008
Advanced Biofuels Emerging Technologies & Commercial Development
Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco, CA
(781) 430-2118

May 14-16, 2008
Optimizing Ethanol Plants
The Millennium Hotel
Minneapolis, MN
(818) 888-4444

May 21-22, 2008
Distillers Grains Symposium
Westin Crown Center, Kansas City, MO
(800) 759-3448

June 16-19, 2008
2008 International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo
Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, Nashville, TN
(800) 258-6094

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