Kansas ethanol plants start producing new corn diesel

Source: By Megan Hart, The Topeka-Capital Journal • Posted: Monday, August 4, 2014

Fuel is chemically identical to petroleum-based diesel

Two ethanol plants in Kansas have started turning a different part of corn into a fuel they say can replace conventional diesel.

Jeff Oestmann, president and CEO of East Kansas Agri-Energy in Garnett, said they use starch from corn to make ethanol for mixing into gasoline, and previously would sell the oil, fiber shell and gluten protein in the corn for use as feed. Now, the oil will be processed to make diesel, he said.

“We’re grinding the same amount of grain,” he said. “We’re making two renewable fuels from the same kernel of corn.”

Most diesel is made from petroleum, though synthetic fuels and “biodiesel,” made from vegetable oils, have a small share of the market. The “renewable diesel” they will make will be different from biodiesel because conventional trucks, trains and planes could run on it exclusively, and it doesn’t have the same difficulty in cold temperatures that biodiesel has, Oestmann said.

“It is identical to the fuel you buy on the street,” he said.

Oestmann said they plan to hire about 12 people and build a new facility to expand production. When the plant is completed next year, it will be able to produce about 3 million gallons of renewable diesel annually, he said.

WB Services, which is based in Sedgwick, developed the process over the last four years and is working with East Kansas Agri-Energy, said Ron Beemiller, president and CEO of WB. Some other companies have made plant-based versions of diesel before, he said, but their “hydrocracking” process is new.

It involves combining hydrogen with the corn oil, with some of the hydrogen combining to remove excess oxygen and some combining with the oil itself, Beemiller said. The process also requires high temperatures and pressure, but consumes relatively little energy because the reaction generates its own heat after a certain point, he said.

It could use other plant oils or even grease, Beemiller said, and most of its byproducts can be used in ethanol production. It also can create a fuel similar to natural gas, he said.

The WB plant produces about 3 million gallons of renewable diesel, Beemiller said, and it sells for the price as conventionally produced diesel. It can produce summer and winter varieties of diesel as well as other fuel types, he said.

“It’s kind of like a refinery,” he said.

Oestmann said the fuel could be particularly important in California, which has a “low-carbon fuel standard.” The standard creates a cap-and-trade system to reduce fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions, which are a factor in climate change. The standards include scoring carbon dioxide emitted when a fuel is pumped or synthesized, processed and transported, according to the California Department of Energy.

Keith Hohn, a professor of chemical engineering at Kansas State University, said the main issue that could arise with using corn to create diesel would be if it became popular and drew a large amount of the crop. The same issue arose from the use of ethanol in gasoline, which was a factor driving up corn prices as fuel makers, livestock raisers and food processors competed for the same corn, driving up prices.

From a technical perspective, however, it doesn’t appear there would be many problems, Hohn said. The process involves mixing hydrogen with the corn oil to remove excess oxygen molecules, which wouldn’t create harmful waste, he said — though the hydrogen likely would come from natural gas, meaning renewable fuel wouldn’t completely replace fossil fuels.

“You basically end up with water” when the hydrogen reacts with oxygen, he said.