Butamax opens (phase 1) biobutanol project in Minnesota, with Highwater Ethanol

August 20, 2014 |

butamax_logoIncludes Installation of a Corn Oil Separation Technology with “50% higher than the normal” yields

We’ve learned that Butamax Advanced Biofuels and Highwater Ethanol have completed, successfully commissioned and begun production (at Highwater’s ethanol plant in Lamberton, Minnesota) a first phase of Butamax’s biobutanol retrofit that includes a novel corn oil separation technology delivering 50% higher yields than seen with traditional back-end corn oil separation technology, according to Butamax. The official opening of the upgraded plant was held today in Lamberton.

“As well as being an essential part of the retrofit,” Butamax CEO Paul Beckwith told the Digest, “it is also a value-adding technology while still producing ethanol, and a first phase of a retrofit that helps us de-risk the full technology for our partners.”

The technology sits in front of the fermentation process, prepares the corn mash for fermentation to biobutnaol and efficiently removes corn oil from the stream.

“We broke ground in September-October of last year, completed construction on the 21st March, completed commissioning in parallel on that same day in March, and started the facility up in five days, on the 26th,” noted Beckwith. “We are processing all of the feed into Highwater’s fermentation, and removing large volumes of corn oil. The project was on time, on budget and executed safely. We are now further optimizing the process to further improve the removal rate. We’re very excited that our strategy of thorough development and thorough piloting has been validated.”

Next steps

“The next step is phase two, basically a full retrofit — the full butanol technology package. We’re in front end engineering for phase two, although in the case of Highwater our current agreement covers phase one only. We are discussing with Highwater about being the lead partner in phase two, and expect by year-end to be able to give more clarity about the timelines for the next phase.”

Rewind to the biobutanol advantage

For ethanol plants, there are two reasons to think “butanol”. First, there’s higher overall value when you consider the yields and the prices for ethanol and butanol. Think in terms of a 10 percent lift. Second, think growth. In the US, E10 ethanol has reached the saturation point, E15 and E85 need more pumps to grow market share, but with butanol the path to growth is painless. If the US E10 market is limited to some 13.5 billion gallons of ethanol, you can blend 21.6 billion gallons of butanol. And, since butanol yields are about 20% lower than ethanol yields, the same capacity that produces 13.5 billion gallons of ethanol, produces 11.8 billion gallons of butanol.

So if you see opportunities to add 80% in new capacity, you’re right on the money. Possibly, in the money.

Corn oil extraction — the big win in phase one?

What was the rationale for having a phase one at all? “It was really other reasons,” Beckwith told the Digest. ” The corn oil removal is a big value add. The driver is really about de-risking the package, and we wanted to demonstrate that it performs reliably and starts up well. In our process we need to prepares the corn mash for fermentation, and in doing this we’ve also engineered it so that it separates corn oil.”

A 50% gain in corn oil yield

“We can’t reveal precise numbers on yield, but these are much high rates than normal, and very high quality oil,” said Beckwith. “It’s something like 50% higher than the norm.”

The Digest asked Beckwith if the investment and effort to convert was more process-intensive than the traditional back-end corn-oil extraction. “It’s fair to say is a significantly more process intensive system than a typical back-end extraction system. The great news is that it has had a good economic return, and we’ve had a number of people approach us about phase one, while we’ve been putting the system through its paces.

The de-risking

“We’re building confidence around the timeline,” said Beckwith, “and what can be done at a given rate. This facility was built on time and on budget, and when you consider that last winter was one of the worst winters for construction, it demonstrated that we have got the processes right for implementing.

As ethanol yields have skyrocketed, has interest in butanol faded?

“The industry is not feeling the pain compared to the past. But one of the reasons companies are so interested in butanol, is that they are looking for the next technology step to improve their competitive position in the future. But they also know that low corn prices and low ethanol prices are great for butanol value, because butanol allows you to blend more biofuels into gasoline when biofuels are cheap relative to petroleum. Butanol creates more value. Although the corn ethanol industry is actually in a relatively comfortable position, the value for butanol remains robust, and butanol fits the long-term strategy of getting more bioenergy into the market.”

E10 saturation

“The industry very much recognizes the need for continued growth for biofuels,” said Beckwith, “and they see very clearly that butanol is a very attractive option. Iif you have a technology that leaps over the blend wall, [the advantages] are well recognized by the EPA and the ethanol industry.

Blend rates – 12.5% or 16%?

“We are shooting for the full 16 percent. There’s only one thing left, and that’s health effects testing, showing that there are not new pollutants. That testing is underway. We already have the vehicle compatibility testing in place.”

What about other applications for biobutanol —chemicals, jet fuel, diesel?

“We are interested in all the derivative applications for butanol — chemicals, jet, diesel,” said Beckwith, “but our priority is the gasoline market, and we have not any partnerships in place for the other markets at this time.”

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