The Minnesota biofuels industry has been evolving since its inception, which was discussed in Part 1 of this feature article. In this part, we look at how the industry is taking shape in Minnesota and what some of the most promising new technologies are on the horizon.
An interesting element of the biofuel industry is that while it is evolving on a national level, it has also evolved locally. Tim Rudnicki, executive director of the Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association, explains that states and regions have differing available resources as well as differing types and tons of biomass available.
“Biofuel producers in any particular region adapt to the availability of various resources including, for example, access to energy, water, transportation infrastructure and so on,” says Rudnicki. “The availability of these important resources helped to accelerate the evolution of the biofuel industry in Minnesota and is what has made, and will continue to make, Minnesota one of the leading states when it comes to the production of biofuels.”
It’s interesting to review what could be deemed the top improvements that the ethanol industry has adopted over the past few years. Randall Doyal, CEO of Al-Corn Clean Fuel, says that since the plant went online they have adapted their process and technology to reduce down time, increase throughput and increase yield.
Al-Corn was designed as a 10 million gallon per year plant, and today they are operating at 50 million gallons per year. “We have increased our fuel ethanol yield from two and a half gallons per bushel to over two point nine gallons per bushel,” says Doyal. “We have added CO2 recovery, distillers corn oil recovery, and focused on our distillers grains quality to add value to our ethanol production.”
So, what are the new best technologies coming down the pipeline? Rudnicki says the future is very exciting because it will involve many facets including the interface between biological processes and technology. He believes some of the processes to watch include technologies that will enable corn oil to be more efficiency extracted as well as the use of existing biomass.
From an ethanol plant perspective the next three to five years could bring big changes.
Doyal says the industry is waiting to see what will happen with the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). The industry has reached the point where ethanol makes up 10 percent of the U.S. gasoline supply and the country needs to see growth in the use of biofuels. Doyal believes the industry will primarily grow through “inside the fence” expansion at existing facilities (for example adding cellulosic ethanol technology or biodiesel plant), and today several greenfield projects are beginning to take shape.
In terms of how consumer access will change, Rudnicki says the ethanol industry will make even more progress including enabling more access to consumers for mid-level and higher blends of ethanol and fueling options.
“It’s fantastic to have this production of ethanol and other biofuels, but those clean, renewable fuels must have access to the market. That’s what will finally help to displace finite fossil fuels and help all of us reduce carbon emissions,” says Rudnicki.
When it comes down to brass tax, the biofuels industry must be profitable. Doyal says ethanol plant operators need to focus on efficiency improvements to reduce their cost of operation and consumption of energy inputs. “They need to focus on making fermentation and starch utilization as optimum as possible, to get all the carbohydrate value out of the kernel,” he adds. “They need to focus on producing co-products with high quality and consistency. And they need to remain vigilant in their search for new technologies that will bring improvements, or new and more valuable products to offer to the market.”
The Minnesota Bio-Fuels Association is also working with biofuels industry to ensure the industry remains competitive. Rudnicki says one of their key goals is to help lower artificial barriers biofuels face in entering new markets. He also notes that the Association is working with a wide range of stakeholders throughout the supply chain to give fuel retailers as well as consumers fuel choice at the pump.
In addition, Rudnicki highlights the important role state legislation has played in the industry’s growth. Minnesota has created public policies that not only support the production of biofuels but also call for greater use of biofuels. In closing, Rudnicki says, “Minnesota law aims to displace at least 30 percent of petroleum by 2025 with biofuels. That’s good for the economy, saves consumers money, creates greater energy independence and decreases greenhouse gas emissions.”