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A timely evolution for the ethanol industry

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The middle of a pandemic would not be most people’s ideal time to join a new company, especially one working with ethanol producers in the middle of a fuel and climate crisis. Yet it is often in such challenging times that the most exciting and ingenious solutions are conceived.
My arrival at Whitefox as head of global sales in June 2021 was the latest step in a career evolution that had begun in the speciality chemicals business, then progressed to the capital equipment business for a fuel pump manufacturer, and finally a spell in the filtration industry.
In Whitefox I had found a company steeped in innovation and enjoying its own evolution, with a solution for separating mixtures in a way that reduced water and energy consumption, thus increasing profitability and minimising carbon emissions.
It was a solution very much for these times, but with oil prices plummeting, nearly all new projects in the ethanol industry stopped. In such circumstances a company, and more importantly its people, can either be constrained and go into their shell, or come out determined to demonstrate their adaptability and innovative flair.
The Whitefox team, based in London, Calgary, Chicago and now Omaha, rose to the challenge wonderfully and created a new and unique solution.
The problem with ethanol
The amount of energy used for separating chemicals is a staggering 10–15% of the world's total energy consumption1. Our quest at Whitefox is to provide modern, efficient solutions to achieve this task without that enormous energy deficit.
The benefit to our customers is twofold: more efficient production equals less cost and more profit; it also reduces environmental impact in the form of steam and greenhouse gas emissions and water waste, which helps them to meet their net-zero targets. We arrived at our solution by taking the time afforded by the pandemic to get closer to customers like Kansas Ethanol.
We learned from them about the rapidly evolving changes they were facing in the market and listened to what they were trying to achieve. It was important not to be prescriptive, rushing to find a fixed, premeditated solution, but to pay attention and let the solution fit the problem.
Once the need was well understood, we applied 20 years of chemical and engineering experience to design, create and implement a unique membrane solution that enabled Kansas Ethanol to simultaneously produce an ultra-dry and ultra-pure USP grade ethanol with low congener levels, and a fuel grade ethanol with increased capacity and increased energy savings. The facility can now manufacture both products without the fuel grade product being an accidental byproduct of an inefficiency in the USP grade production process.
A natural solution
It was a solution born from observing nature. The way nature separates mixtures is through low energy, continuous filtering of molecules, not high-pressure swing absorption that separates by the application of brute force, which unfortunately is the energy guzzling technology used in the majority of industrial applications today.
By advancing our membrane chemistry, we created a more efficient and robust separation process that gets closer to nature. Our engineering capabilities are also evolving to develop unrivalled ways of conserving energy in industrial processes and thus enabling our customers to strive for net zero objectives. It is this marriage of competencies that is allowing our ethanol customers and customers in adjacent industries, such as sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), to evolve with us and ultimately produce more with less waste of natural and valuable resources.
Flexibility and sustainability
Not only are there obvious operational and process benefits in our solution, but the ability to manufacture ethanol grades according to demand and not accident is providing Kansas Ethanol with the flexibility and adaptability to address changes in the market.
Furthermore, this flexibility enables Kansas Ethanol to position itself ready to address further changes that may occur and be able to serve multiple customers with exacting specifications.
In our small way, we are enabling our customers to evolve and adapt, and the reduced operational and ongoing cost benefit is more vital in this ever-changing world than it has even been. A visiting CEO of a leading ethanol provider, who visited the Kansas Ethanol site, remarked that our commissioning of this plant was an example of “world class engineering”.
ICE XL – the latest evolution
At the Innovation Forum at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, we were able to meet senior executives from multiple industries and the word on all their lips was “decarbonisation”.
The cynics amongst us have heard enough buzzwords over the decades to be cautious, but post COP26 this same message is translating to real action and activity on the part of our customers.
We are delighted to be working with Western Plains, an innovative producer which is working with various energy-efficient technologies with the firm objective of producing ethanol using zero carbon resources. Whitefox ICE-XL membrane technology is playing a pivotal role in this quest.
Whitefox ICE-XL enables the separation of ethanol and water mixtures without the need to form azeotropic conditions.
By using Whitefox membranes as the sole dehydration solution, not only is Western Plains able to increase capacity by 50-60% by avoiding all the unnecessary debottlenecking processes, but more importantly to reduce energy consumption by approximately half.
We are also able to provide an energy recovery solution that will reduce energy consumption to one third of the original level. Evolution of knowledge and experience will undoubtedly see Western Plains go one step further and become a carbon negative producer in future.
Sharing our knowledge
In advance of the forthcoming FEW, and based on our feedback from comments at customer board meetings, conferences and exhibitions, we would like to stimulate thoughts on how we can help producers to “lower your Plant CI score”.
We will describe some advanced energy-saving solutions, focusing on innovative high-efficiency dehydration processes, that will enable plant configuration and optimisation changes, integrated with the benefits of using continuous membrane technology to achieve a more tailored score, commensurate with Capex budgets, whilst also progressing with net zero objectives.
After 20 years of marrying the chemistry and engineering knowhow of membrane technology, Whitefox’s evolution is demonstrating our growing relevance in multiple industries that require modern and efficient ways to separate mixtures. Come and talk to us.


Reference:
1. Lively, R., Sholl, D. From water to organics in membrane separations. Nature Mater 16, 276–279 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nmat4860
For more information: This article was written by Tony Short, head of global sales, Whitefox. Visit: whitefox.com