Western Plains Energy and the journey towards net zero ethanol

November 10, 2022 |

In Kansas, Western Plains Energy is pioneering carbon neutral ethanol production by replacing molecular sieves with fully integrated membrane separation solutions in a quest to become the first zero emissions ethanol producer.  Whitefox, is the bioethanol membrane engineering innovator supplying the innovative technology.  Engineering phase 1 is already in progress and the project has an estimated start-up and commissioning date towards the end of 2023. 

Let’s look at that today.

In the Digest version of 500 Things to Do Before You Die, a trip to Abilene and the Eisenhower Presidential Library is on the list, and if you head west a couple of hours from there along Interstate 70, locally named the Eisenhower Highway, just before the junction where US Highway splits off to the south, that’s Western Plains Energy. It sits atop a lot of our collective history — the Oregon Trail ran just to the north, the Smoky Hill Trail ran right smack through town, and I wonder how many people can trace their roots to an oxen-propelled pioneer wagon making a few miles an hour across the Kansas portion of the Great American Plain. When Katherine Lee Bates penned the lyrics to America the Beautiful, it was on a journey across Kansas to Pikes Peak that passed right here. The original “amber waves of grain”, yep, that’s them, that’s the feedstock.

Well might we reflect, as we ship ourselves and our myriad goods along the highways, on the process process of making domestic energy from the produce of our fruitful fields:

America! America! May God thy gold refine, Till all success be nobleness, And every gain divine!

It’s the nature of people, all around the world — for what is America, even going back to our native tribes, but a series of peoples who arrived from all around the world — to improve their energy systems, make transport more efficient and effective. It’s in our nature to improve, and in our nature to waste and lay waste — the dilemma of mankind is the balancing of our instinct to make better and to destroy, as surely as we see it in the activities of children as they build and then topple their blocks and sandcastles. Lately, we’ve erred on the side of laying waste, correction is in order, and renewables are the path. Yet, renewables themselves can be made more efficient. Therein lies this story at Western Plains Energy — it doesn’t stop at doing something noble, they leave things better than we found them.

The Whitefox backstory

Now, cue the entrance music for Whitefox technology. 

You may not know it,. most production processes incorporates energy intensive chemical separations, accounting for a staggering 10-15% of the world’s total energy consumption. So, when Whitefox’s innovative membrane separation significantly reduces energy and water requirements, providing customers with an efficient production process, minimized cost and environmental impact. These are Membranes for Net Zero. Perhaps one day, Membranes for Below Zero, the challenge we have set for the renewables fuels industry to go farther and make the world better than what EV’s can deliver.

As more background, Whitefox’s Integrated Cartridge Efficiency uses membrane-based cartridge technology which enables clients to produce ethanol and other chemicals to the highest market standards in the most energy and water efficient way.

The Western Plains Energy backstory

We’ve been watching Western Plains for some time in their drive to transform their heritage, to improve, to leave better. We reported on their installation of Himark’s advanced ethanol technology in 2011. We reported way back in 2013 as the final construction stages and preparation for start-up at North America’s largest anaerobic digester were underway at the Western Plains Energy ethanol plant in Oakley. The facility aimed to process 1,200 tons of plant waste per day.

We remember a courageous and stinging letter to U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp demanding he withdraw his co-sponsorship of a bill that would repeal the RFS over four years, before a coalition of Kansas Republicans ousted Huelskamp for Roger Marshall, who went on to serve in the US Senate. 

It’s been a story of continuous improvement that goes back some 20 years to the original 30 million gallon facility that was proposed to investors and which raised $16 million in equity to build the plant. When we think of the benefits to the local farmers in providing a new market — that was $16 million well spent.

Reaction from the stakeholders

Derek Peine, CEO at Western Plains Energy said: “Since beginning operations in 2004, Western Plains has always been on the forefront of innovation and an early adaptor of technologies that deliver step-changes in energy efficiency and operational yield. In our discussion with Whitefox we found that its ICE-XL integrated membrane solution would serve as a cornerstone in fully decarbonizing our production process. Our quest to achieve net-zero emissions is something that we are passionate about, and we are excited to partner with Whitefox to help us achieve our goal.” 

Tony Short, Head of Global Sales at Whitefox said: “Whitefox ICE-XL is an evolution of the Whitefox ICE® which we have installations in 9 US ethanol plants. ICE-XL fully replaces existing molecular sieves and delivers exceptional operational benefits such as up to 50% capacity increase across distillation and dehydration and 50% steam reduction when fully integrated. Our team of process engineers worked closely with Derek and his team to design a solution that would bring exceptional energy recovery and carbon reductions to enable carbon neutral fuel production.” 

Gillian Harrison, CEO at Whitefox said “I first met Derek in 2016 and it was inspiring to hear how focussed he was on reducing the carbon footprint of ethanol production. We began discussing how we could expand the Whitefox ICE solution to a full replacement of molecular sieves, given their propensity to crack, so it’s exciting to now be working with Western Plains to install our first ICE-XL and support them on their journey to Net Zero ethanol” 

More on Whitefox here and Western Plains Energy here.

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