Elevating Quality Control | EthanolProducer.com
When lab staff aren’t introducing new innovations, testing ethanol fermentations, and producing real-time production data for their colleagues, they’re making sure what’s coming to the door is right for the production needs today.
In a world that creates, consumes and needs more and more data, ethanol plant laboratories are at home. Equipped with a constant supply of powerful new technologies and proven backup instruments that have been doing the job for years, today’s lab managers must both react to what is happening at the moment and predict what will happen. go follow.
Ethanol Producer Magazine spoke with industry veterans and lab experts about the role of the modern lab and how managers deal with lingering issues (like mycotoxins in incoming corn) as their teams work also to stay ahead of the day-to-day that allows factories to operate optimally (such as testing for quality across the supply chain).
Innovation in the laboratory
Don Cannon has proven his ability as an innovator in the field of analytical chemistry by succeeding in the private sector, through his work leading public laboratories, and now as Director of Research and Development for the team of Green Plains Inc. Cannon is currently helping usher in a new era in a co-managed collaborative space in Omaha, Nebraska, connecting Green Plains’ expertise and needs with industry know-how and technology or testing the knowledge of its subsidiary, Fluid Quip Technologies. All of this happens on one site.
Keith Jakel, director of sales and marketing at FQT, thinks like Cannon. “There’s a great history of innovation with what we’re doing in Omaha,” he says. “We have such a knowledge base between the two companies. Chances are we have an expert in the field for any questions that arise. »
The Omaha Innovation Center lab provides a glimpse of what a centralized, multi-purpose lab can look like, Cannon says. The team there uses the most modern equipment possible while running strategic tests in conjunction with other tests that are now mandatory. With Green Plains focusing on producing sustainable bio-based ingredients for the massive animal feed, fuel and bioproducts industries, more testing is needed than ever.
“I think the increase in the food market that animal feed products are entering has created a fundamental shift in how we run the lab,” Cannon says. “We plan to implement quality management systems now. Throughout the production process, but also in the laboratory.
Jakel says the standards on some food ingredients are very high. The end user is also looking for a sound test protocol throughout. “We need to show them how products are tested throughout the supply chain,” he explains.
Like most lab professionals in the biobased products and biofuels industry, Cannon is embracing and adapting to the new necessities demanded by its profession. Modern labs in the renewable energy or bio-based sectors are evolving, he says. New tests, new technologies and new ways of thinking about the true function of the laboratory itself are the new normal. Although most labs may seem to operate as they always have, the modern lab has changed. Production is not the only area a lab needs to focus on, especially those facilities that produce multiple product streams for various markets. Quality control and assurance are now essential, as is the ability to validate third-party claims (through on-site testing) regarding technology or upgrades.
“Labs are no longer just testing to help production,” Cannon says. “The best labs and facilities are now putting quality control and quality assurance experts in place for input and output.”
To maintain the rigorous testing protocol required for more products in multiple markets, Jakel and Cannon say they’ve had to make sure their testing is consistent.
“Something as simple as how you prepare samples in a lab is huge. This consistency across the board is the key to higher margins in every department. That’s what we looked at with this lab,” he says.
Jakel also says that the role of testing today isn’t just about what’s going on, but also about how well new or existing facilities work. “Our technologies rely on sampling and processing in the laboratory to ensure that they work at maximum efficiency.”
Most of the time, the team samples every couple of hours to make sure they are adapting to anomalies. “Doing tests allows us to make adjustments on the fly,” says Jakel.
Through his work in the ethanol industry and other sectors, Cannon says he’s learned that a lab shouldn’t just focus on testing. He is a proponent of only running tests if they make sense. He works with his team in the lab and at any factory he is affiliated with to ensure that the data collected from each test is meaningful. Cannon appreciates the consistency of testing protocols over the number of tests performed, he says. He also tries to remind others that sometimes results are less important than the direction of a trend in testing. Sometimes a lab-scale test will not mimic the same numerical correlations that larger systems produce. But, he explains, in which direction does a test move? If the numbers are moving in the desired direction, he is less likely to overlook the effectiveness of the larger system.
“There are things that really excited me in the lab,” he says. “Then you’re going to replicate it on a large scale and it doesn’t always work. That’s why a good lab has the ability to understand why technology can’t evolve based on lab testing. »
Modern labs also serve a purpose unrelated to current operations, Jakel and Cannon both agree. “The ability to deliver meaningful data to operations is an industrial lab’s number one priority,” says Cannon.
Sometimes that means providing data — or evidence — that an outside vendor’s claims about new technology or upgrades are true.
“Each plant operates so uniquely now,” says Jakel, “that you need to be able to create those baselines for your own operation. »
FQT has developed several laboratory simulations for its technology in order to be able to show what its technology can do with certain vinasses. The simulations help show how much corn oil a plant could get from adopting FQT technology.
“It’s important that a factory can consider an investment before spending a penny,” says Jakel. “The information obtained through testing allows us to make good decisions.”
Although the technology, standards and strategy of ethanol plant laboratories have changed, the quality issues of the corn they test have not. For example, mycotoxins, a family of toxins produced by molds that grow on almost all vegetation and grains, are a recurring concern. These toxins are harmful to humans and animals that consume food products made from these crops, which is why they must be monitored at ethanol plants producing distillers grains, explains Lauren Kellen, laboratory manager for CHS Inc.
“Certain conditions such as extreme drought, extreme humidity and excessive rain can cause a sudden increase in toxin levels in crops,” says Kellen. “The drought that much of the prairie land has experienced this summer will likely cause aflatoxin values to rise at harvest.
Several surveys indicate the current status of mycotoxins each year. The surveys collect information during the fall, before releasing updates from February. DSM’s July release of its own mycotoxin survey showed that of the 48 maize DDGS samples tested, monitoring suggested mycotoxin presence had increased somewhat from 2020, with the biggest changes in the zearalenone (6% above normal). Only the samples sent have been tested. Samples with clinical signs of toxin impact were not included in investigative testing. DSM has been conducting the survey since 2014 and has analyzed thousands of agricultural samples from around the world.
Dealing with toxins in corn isn’t new to Kellen, but the issue shows the importance of a well-run lab. Kellen says being vigilant about mycotoxins is just part of producing ethanol. “We’ve all seen ups and downs in mycotoxin levels,” she says.
Using past experience, Kellen’s team has developed a successful monitoring process for mycotoxins. “We have plans in place to quickly deal with high levels if they are introduced into the plant. We are confident in our instrumentation and validation methods.
This year, the majority of grow space in the Midwest has experienced record droughts in addition to extreme heat. Some mycotoxins thrive in these conditions, and many plants buying from these areas will likely have to deal with the toxins well into next year.
To stay on top of the problem, Kellen’s team tests incoming and outgoing products to continuously monitor mycotoxin values. The combination of in-house testing methods and third-party verification allows them to monitor the incoming or outgoing toxin load. During the harvest, they multiply the tests.
Although the USDA and Food and Drug Administration have established limits for each toxin based on the market a product is intended for (pork, cattle, etc.), Kellen’s team created their own limits in the lab that she uses to report any product. approach USDA or FDA thresholds.
This year in particular, Kellen says lab managers should be prepared for increased testing and associated costs, and think about a proactive approach rather than a reactive approach. “Testing samples can take time,” she says, “so it’s good to plan ahead with lab staff to know you’ll have the manpower to do the job.”
Kellen thinks it’s important to understand that “while we can’t change the weather conditions for crops in our regions, we can do a good job of monitoring and rejecting heavily flagged products.” This cannot be done without the support of a [capable] lab team to be able to effectively test and monitor data associated with toxins,” she says. “Having a highly trained team makes the monitoring process easier.”
Author: Luke Geiver
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