Ethanol industry evolving in COVID-19 world – from biofuel to hand sanitizer, adapting is necessary

July 19, 2020 |

Being flexible and adapting to a shifting environment is not just about Darwinism, but about survival in a changing world quickly. Just this week, Green Plains shifted one of their Nebraska facilities to make FCC grade alcohol to be used for producing hand sanitizer. Lactips developed a solution to produce water-soluble strips for sealing COVID-19 contaminated hospital linen bags. ENGlobal started providing the world’s largest independent beverage bottler with technical expertise enabling the speedy bottling of hand sanitizer.

In today’s Digest, the Green Plains pivot, the Lactips innovation, ENGLobal, POET, Badger State Ethanol, and others who are adapting, adjusting and acclimating to a rapidly changing world.

Green Plains’s Pivot

One of the largest corn processing companies in the world and through adjacent businesses, Green Plains produces sustainable biofuels, and high protein feed ingredients. But now FCC Grade alcohol produced in Nebraska is being used to produced hand sanitizer. Check out this video about the collaboration between the University of Nebraska – Lincoln and Green Plains to make produce the high-demand commodity.

“With fuel demand down as much as 80%, unstable global markets, and a lack of regulatory certainty from the EPA, the ethanol industry is taking a huge hit,” according to a recent Tweet from Growth Energy that referenced Green Plains’s video interview with their CEO Todd Becker on BloombergTV, where he says coronavirus is “wreaking havoc” on the ethanol industry.

It’s no surprise then that Green Plains just added USP grade alcohol to their York, Nebraska location. Through their subsidiary, Green Plains York LLC, they contracted with Fluid Quip Technologies LLC to engineer and design a high-quality USP distillation system, upgrading and expanding the capabilities of the facility.

“The upgrade to USP Grade alcohol at our York biorefinery solidifies Green Plains as a strategic provider of high-quality alcohols to our valued customers for use in sanitizers and disinfectants,” said Todd Becker, president and chief executive officer. “This project further enhances the quality of our alcohol, increases our flexibility, and ensures uninterrupted delivery of a premium product with unparalleled purity to our customers for the long term.”

Green Plains York has been manufacturing alcohol distilled specifically for the production of cleaners and disinfectants for over 20 years and was originally a beverage grade facility. It will continue to produce high-quality, FCC Grade alcohol which meets FDA specifications during construction. The project is anticipated to be constructed and completed within the next 90 days.

Talk about moving at “warp speed” – faster than any vaccine – Green Plains just days ago announced its subsidiary, Green Plains Wood River LLC has installed a separate 25 million gallon facility engineered and constructed by ICM, Inc. to produce FCC Grade alcohol for domestic and export markets and expects to upgrade the production process to produce USP Grade alcohol over the next four to six months.

“Leveraging our operational expertise from our decades of experience at Green Plains York, we were able to quickly enhance our production capabilities at Wood River, further demonstrating our continued commitment to help meet the increased customer demand for high purity alcohol, a key ingredient in sanitizers and disinfectants,” said Todd Becker, president and chief executive officer. “This facility was a fully constructed system to mimic our quality at York and allows us to provide our customers with additional high-quality alcohol, distilled specifically for consumer and industrial markets.”

When complete, the upgrade to USP at Wood River will bring Green Plains’ total USP production capacity to approximately 75 million gallons per year. FCC grade alcohol meeting FDA specifications is available immediately.

“The transformation of Wood River to a modern biorefinery continues, as this new facility combined with the significant drop in operating costs per gallon from our Project 24 initiative squarely puts this location as one of the best in class ethanol plants in the industry today,” added Becker. “This project was not just a small change to meet minimum quality standards as others have done, but was designed and constructed to ensure our product has longevity in customer supply chains and consumer products.”

A hurt industry

With gasoline demand down and the ethanol industry aching, ethanol producers had to find a way to adapt. POET’s CEO, Jeff Broin, spoke with NBC News in May about how the ethanol industry is hurting, how COVID-19 impacted POET’s ethanol business and how they are pivoting to hand sanitizer to address the shortage and keep their employees working and facilities running. Watch the video here.

Erik Huschitt with Badger State Ethanol in Monroe, Wisconsin is the President of the Wisconsin Biofuels Association board and told Brownfield Ag News for America that the ethanol industry has stood up to the challenge to fix a broken sanitizer and disinfectant supply chain, and after the pandemic is over, he expects some ethanol producers will keep producing disinfectants. He said the industry has responded in “a big, big way and we don’t see that going away. It will take time, but you’ll see the equilibrium come back where too many have gone that direction and flood that market.”

Huschitt says the market during and after COVID-19 will take care of how much sanitizer is made. “You will see in a matter of time us oversupplying the alcohol needed in those industries. We will then crater that price, and then we will likely see that shift back into fuel.”

In May, the Digest reported that ADM partnered with Sazerac Company, the largest producer of distilled spirits in North America, to help increase Sazerac’s production of hand sanitizer and support efforts to fight COVID-19. In June, ADM further expanded its industrial alcohol production, first at its Peoria, Illinois facility and now at its Clinton, Iowa facility in an effort to meet continued demand for hand sanitizers and other industrial uses.

BASF said in April that they are significantly expanding the production of disinfectant at its Ludwigshafen site and has now started production of hand sanitizer based on bioethanol, in addition to the isopropanol-based hand sanitizer manufactured to date. Also in April, the Digest reported that GranBio Technologies converted a biorefinery research facility in Georgia to hand sanitizer production.

Going back even further, The Digest reported in March that two Iowa Renewable Fuels Association members sent the first donated shipment of Iowa ethanol and glycerin to the state of Iowa to be used by Iowa Prison Industries for the production of hand sanitizer during the national shortage.

In March, The Digest reported a top story of how Amyris launched hand sanitizer as well as completed initial testing of its fermentation-derived squalene as a vaccine adjuvant. And another top story in March on “The Hand Sanitizer Market: a salvation for beleaguered ethanol producers, or not?”

Just last week, The Digest reported that Praj Industries is expanding their work from transport fuels to renewable chem and materials.

In June, the Digest reported that ENGlobal’s revenue was up 58% with $8.3 million in new business, and a $20 million hydrogen plant contract for renewable diesel facility, and are providing the world’s largest independent beverage bottler with technical expertise enabling the speedy bottling of critically needed hand sanitizer.

And let’s get into Lactips and laundry…

Lactips innovation helps hospitals fighting COVID-19

Another busy week in the bioworld with France-based Lactips who developed a water-soluble strip for hospital laundry bags enabling hospital and health care laundries to isolate COVID-19 contaminated linen.

Faced with the need to safeguard everyone across the supply chain for laundry operations against all threats of infection through contact with potentially contaminated linen, Lactips rapidly developed this new application.

From the first week of the lockdown, following the influx of patients, Lactips was contacted by four regional hospital centers (13, 42, 43 and 94) and an internationally renowned university hospital center covering 39 hospitals across the Paris Region that had a shortage of water-soluble strips. The company responded immediately to the urgent health situation by shipping scored rolls then designing a specific product adapted for these healthcare requirements.

Approved by all the sector’s stakeholders, and released in Europe, this new product, developed in partnership with a French manufacturer, makes it possible to secure the handling of infected linen and limit the risk of infection within the laundry treatment circuit. Placed directly in the machine, the soluble strip disappears completely in contact with water (from 40° to 60°C in accordance with the standard applied), releasing the linen from the bag during the washing cycle without leaving behind any sticky residue.

Lactips is helping maintain the “clean circuit” chain for a range of stakeholders (senior housing, laundry facilities and transport providers).

During the health crisis, with a shortage of supplies of the strips normally used, the hospital sector has had to find alternatives. Thanks to Lactips, healthcare operators can now source supplies of sealed bags that integrate Lactips’ fully biosourced and biodegradable technology, replacing the existing solutions manufactured with petroleum-based products. To ensure a rapid response to their requirements, Lactips developed not only the technological solution, but also the finished product, in partnership with a leading firm from the bag packaging sector, supplying the bags.

“Initially, we were able to respond quickly to provide a temporary solution for healthcare stakeholders who were on the front line during the epidemic. Faced with growing demand, thanks to the unprecedented mobilization of our teams, supported by local industry, Lactips was able to develop, in record time, an effective and approved solution that is continuing to be used by the hospitals today”, explains Pascal Chabance, Head of Sales at Lactips.

Bottom Line

We’ve been hearing about these shifts for the last few months as we learn that the biofuels industry is one of great innovation and promise because of its ability to adjust, adapt, acclimate to a rapidly changing world. One thing for sure is the only constant is change and the biofuels and biobased industries certainly know how to handle that well and are used to having to pivot at a moment’s notice.

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