Why High Uptime for Your Laboratory Instruments is Critical to Your Bioethanol Plant’s Profitability 

September 26, 2016 |

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-4-32-37-pmBy Mark Janeczko, Energy and Chemicals Marketing Manager,
Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, Inc. 

Special to The Digest

The Future of Renewable Fuels 

Whatever your thoughts regarding the future of the world’s energy supply, it is clear biofuel production and its clean implications are here to stay. On the federal level, The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program was created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct), federal program requiring transportation fuel sold in the United States to contain a minimum volume of renewable fuels. In addition, the 2014 Farm Bill (The Agriculture Act of 2014) extended loan guarantee eligibility to renewable chemicals and bio based products producers, through Section 9003, the Biorefinery, Renewable Chemical, and Biobased Manufacturing Assistance. Also on the state level, states have implemented subsidies, loan guarantees, and tax credits to further the development new bio fuel plants.

Razor Thin Margins 

But like many commoditized industries, prices for feed stocks fluctuate affecting profitability. Because these fuels are also intertwined with the petroleum based fuel industry, this puts further pressure on profits. The biofuel sector, for one, is likely to experience mixed reactions to the declining oil prices. Enthusiasm for biofuels also is waning as gas and diesel pricing are relatively the lowest they have been in the US for many years. Therefore, biofuel plants are under the gun to manufacture their product as inexpensively as possible. With razor thin margins, becoming more cost efficient and productive are keys to success for these plants.

Production Monitoring Keys to Efficiency and Profitability 

One of the keys to efficient production is the monitoring of the production processes. This is accomplished through many means. One of these is the on-site process or quality control laboratory. These labs are tasked to monitor the fermentation process by collecting samples of the feed stock at the beginning and throughout the bioethanol production process with various tests performed on these samples.

Good Housekeeping Is Important 

In order to keep the plant running, high lab instrument uptime is a critical success factor for obtaining accurate and precise data for these tests in a timely manner. As simple as it sounds, cleanliness in the lab is important. Making certain lab benches are clean as well as the instrumentation, helps to support high uptime. In addition, timely and periodic calibration services are required while maintaining the equipment. Detailed, preventive maintenance procedures are important in preventing data corruption. It is prudent to follow the manufacturer’s suggestions and procedures.

High Tech Instrumentation To The Rescue 

One of the critical tests for monitoring the production process uses an analytical instrument called a High Performance Liquid Chromatograph. High performance liquid chromatography (HPLC; formerly referred to as high-pressure liquid chromatography), is a technique in analytical chemistry used to separate, identify, and quantify each component in a mixture. It relies on pumps to pass a pressurized liquid solvent (mobile phase) containing the sample mixture through a column filled with a solid adsorbent material. Each component in the sample sticks to the adsorbent material, and due to their chemical properties, the components are separated as they come off the column. A detector called a Refractive Index Detector sees the compounds coming off the column. Because these types of analytical detectors are sensitive to variations in the mobile phase flow, a stable pumping system with virtually no pulsations is important. Equally critical is a detector that reduces the time to stabilization after power-on. A dual temperature control for the optical system achieves this. In addition, the amount of mobile phase consumed can be saved by returning pumped liquid back to the mobile phase bottle during intervals when no component peaks are eluted. Analysis cost of per sample is reduced and the burden placed on the environment is mitigated. Computer software controls the HPLC, collects and analyzes the data as well as reports the results.

High Instrument Uptime Is Key 

It is equally critical these systems are operational during the fermentation process because this process cannot be paused or stopped. High uptime is then a critical success factor for Production and Lab Managers. In order to achieve this, HPLC systems must be rugged, reliable, and easy to operate/maintain. Since these facilities are usually miles away from a major town or city, the ability to self-diagnose and service the instrument in a timely manner is important. It is recommended the HPLC system should have the capability of remotely monitoring and controlling the HPLC. Lab personnel and management may not always be in the lab, so remotely logging into the HPLC system from outside the lab is an important factor for continued uptime. Using the power of the tablet or smart phone to do this greatly increases the speed in which to address any issues that may arise on the production floor or in the lab. In addition, receiving an email warning on your PC, tablet or smart phone of a potential problem can also help with averting a lab or production disaster quickly.

Corn Dust Can Creates A Problem 

Because these labs are usually placed within the manufacturing facility (albeit enclosed) where they grind corn (dry mill), there is a high probability of corn dust in the plant atmosphere that may affect the performance of the instrumentation. Eventually this contamination may enter the HPLC through various openings in the instrument. Sugars and carbohydrates contained in the corn dust create an excellent breeding ground for bacterial growth. This growth can cause bacterial build up in the liquid mobile phase flow lines eventually clogging the system resulting in downtime. So as mentioned earlier, keeping the system clean (inside and out) is critical to high uptime.

A Purpose Built Bioethanol Analyzer 

A fully integrated and enclosed purpose built BioEthanol Analyzer (HPLC system) with an air filtration system greatly reduces this potential for contamination and downtime. Using a highly purified mobile phase in air tight enclosed containers also diminishes this potential. Since the analyzer is enclosed, ease of access to key components is very important. In line filters strategically placed to capture any particulate matter in the liquid lines also enhance system uptime.

Simplifying Ease Of Use 

A full color LED touchscreen on the HPLC should be utilized to easily view system performance at a glance. A simple to use software package with all setup functions performed on one screen with helpful wizards to guide the end user, shortens the learning curve. Including a turnkey system setup and methods software module helps these labs get up and running virtually immediately. This is important because these plants operate 24/7 with non-lab personnel running the instrumentation when lab personnel are off duty. Simplifying a high tech instrument for non-technical use is an important feature. Even then, training may be necessary for proper running of the system. Online tutorials or Virtual Advisor enhances this training.

Green Instruments For Green Technology 

Finally, utilizing a built-in ECO mode reducing power consumption and HPLC mobile phase usage, keeps operating costs down. The brand new Shimadzu BioEthanol Analyzer addresses all of the needs for the bioethanol production lab. By reducing instrument operating costs and increasing uptime, bioethanol plants have a new powerful tool to increase profitability. With many years of experience selling and supporting analytical solutions to these labs, listening to our customers’ needs was key to developing this next gen bioethanol analyzer.


Mark Janeczko is Energy and Chemicals Marketing Manager at Shimadzu Scientific Instruments, Inc, and is based in Columbia, MD. More about Shimadzu and its product lines here.

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