In an ethanol processing plant, automation does three things well.
First, it enables the precise manipulation of feedstocks, blends and reactions that lead to a desirable product.
Second it improves safety, essential when considering the flammable nature of any fuel or biofuel plant, by keeping personnel from entering danger zones and performing risky operations.
Third, because computer systems and high-quality automation systems do such a good job of precisely managing the process, they also minimize the manpower required to do so.
“It’s not exactly the best equation for the American Jobs Act,” said Hans Alwin, business development director for Biofuels Automation. “But companies need to compete, and that’s what we’re trying to help them do.”
While the upfront expense made during a plant’s construction might seem costly, automation’s real value should be considered throughout the plant’s lifetime of service.
“Spending 40 percent more on your control system at the front
Innovate to compete
Despite a less than ideal outlook, facilities like those run by Iroquois Bio-Energy Company LLC seem to be thriving. Iroquois Bio-Energy annually processes 15 million bushels of corn into 40 million gallons of ethanol at its Rensselaer, Ind., plant.
In 2009, Trident Automation integrated a corn oil extraction system for Iroquois to remove oil for bio-diesel production, using a Siemens APACS+ version DCS. A year earlier, Trident put a similar system in place a t Marquis Energy, LLC. Marquis has a 140-million-gallon plant in Hennepin, Ill.; and another 75-million-gallon one in Necedah, Wis.
“We do a lot of work with Marquis,” Trident’s Don Jolly said. “They are very innovative and always willing to try new things.”
Alwin has seen the benefits as more mature industries than biofuels moved into automation. His parent-firm, Swanson Flo-Systems, provides process automation control systems to the pulp & paper, chemical processing, food processing and refining industries, in addition to renewable energy.
“When it comes to a plant’s buildup budget, all of those industries recognize the precision, efficiency and safety that automation gives. As a result, they tend to spend more on automation than does anyone in the renewable energy sector,” Alwin said.
Can plants compete without it?
Today, a corn-to-ethanol producer’s reluctance to automate the entire plant can handicap its ability to compete. Alwin has heard objections such as, “I don’t need that fancy distributive controls system. I can do the same thing with this PLC or that PC-based control.”
This mindset, in Alwin’s opinion, stems from the renewable energy industry’s agricultural roots.
“In the ag market, you’re dealing with commodities,” he said. “How much is the fertilizer and where can you get it cheaper?
“But when you’re talking about automation in a processing plant, it’s the absolute wrong place to save a buck.
“As you go out and compete against your peers and the traditional energy market, you’re competing against mature markets,” he said. “These people have invested a lot more in automation, which gives them (A), the precision by blending the product better; and (B), efficiency, by using less energy to do so.”
Bottom line: ethanol and other renewable energy facilities are competing against industries that already know the value of automating.
If these firms are doing it, shouldn’t those in renewable energy follow suit? The skeptics aren’t buying it, and Alwin has heard “some crazy stuff out there.
“Some ethanol producers,” he said, “think that if they over-automate the plant, the operator won’t even know what’s going on when something goes bump in the night. That’s ridiculous. If you configure your automation system correctly, something that could go wrong just might not happen after all, because the control system prevents it from happening in the first place. If something actually does go wrong, the alarms will tell you exactly what happened and what to do to fix it.
“You don’t disconnect the humans from operating the plant,” he added. “You enable them with good automation. In automation process control plants, we’re not conveying corn and biomass to storage, but to a continuously operating process. That’s very different. As a relatively young process industry, renewable energy hasn’t always recognized or learned some of the things about what quality automation can do for them.”
PCs, PLCs not enough
Alwin groups continuous process automation into three different tiers, starting at the top with the “distributive control system,” or DCS. A lower tier would include the programmable logic controller, or PLC.