Farm fields landscape

Plant Design

Fuel From Farms - A Guide to Small-Scale Ethanol Production

Solar Energy Research Institute

The criteria affecting the decision to produce ethanol and establishing a production facility can be categorized into two groups: fixed and variable. The fixed criteria are basically how much ethanol and coproducts can be produced and sold. These issues were discussed in Chapter 11. This chapter is concerned with the second set of criteria and their effect on plant design.

Plant design is delineated through established procedures which are complex and interrelated. The essential elements, however, are described here.

The first step is to define a set of criteria which affect plant design. These criteria (not necessarily in order of importance) are:

  • amount of labor that can be dedicated to operating a plant;
  • size of initial investment and operating cost that can be managed in relation to the specific financial situation and/or business organization;
  • ability to maintain equipment both in terms of time to do it and anticipated expense;
  • federal, state, and local regulations on environmental discharges, transportation of product, licensing, etc;
  • intended use (on-farm use and/or sales) of chemicals;
  • desired form of co-products;
  • safety factors;
  • availability and expense of heat source; and
  • desired flexibility in operation and feedstocks.

The second step is to relate these criteria to the plant as a whole in order to set up a framework or context for plant operations. The third step is complex and involves relating the individual systems or components of production to this framework and to other connected systems within the plant, Finally, once the major systems have been defined, process control systems can be integrated where necessary. This design process leads to specifying equipment for the individual systems and process control.

After the process is discussed from overall plant considerations through individual system considerations to process control, a representative ethanol plant is described. It is an example to illustrate ethanol production technology and not a state-of-the-art or recommended design.

Overall Plant Considerations

Before individual systems and their resulting equipment specifications are examined, the criteria listed above are examined in relation to the overall plant. This establishes a set of constraints against which individual systems can be correlated.

Required Labor

The expense the operation can bear for labor must be considered. To some extent the latter concern is modified by the size of plant selected (the expense for labor is less per gallon the more gallons produced). If it is possible to accomplish the required tasks within the context of daily farming activities, additional outside labor will not be required. A plant operated primarily by one person should, in general, require attention only twice - or at most three times - a day. If possible, the time required at each visit should not exceed 2 hours. The labor availability directly affects the amount and type of control and instrumentation that the plant requires, but it is not the sole defining criteria for plant specification.


The plant should be relatively easy to maintain and not require extensive expertise or expensive equipment.


The process should use crop material in the form in which it is usually or most economically stored (e.g., forage crops should be stored as ensilage).


The choice of whether to produce anhydrous or lower- proof ethanol depends upon the intended use or market and may also have seasonal dependencies. Use of lower-proof ethanols in spark-ignition tractors and trucks poses no major problems during summertime (or other periods of moderate ambient temperature). Any engine equipped for dual injection does not require anhydrous ethanol during moderate seasons (or in moderate climates). If the ethanol is to be sold to blenders for use as gasohol, the capability to produce anhydrous ethanol may be mandatory.

Heat Source

Agricultural residues, coal, waste wood, municipal waste, producer gas, geothermal water, solar, and wind are the preferred possibilities for heat sources. Examples of these considerations are shown in Table V-I. Each poses separate requirements on the boiler selected, the type and amount of instrumentation necessary to fulfill tending (labor) criteria, and the cash flow necessary to purchase the necessary quantity (if not produced on-farm). This last consideration is modified by approaches that minimize the total plant energy demand.


An ethanol plant poses several specific hazards. Some of these are enumerated in Table V-2 along with options for properly addressing them.

Coproduct Form and Generation

Sale or use of the coproducts of ethanol production is an important factor in overall profitability. Markets must be carefully weighed to assure that competitive influences do not diminish the value of the coproduct that results from the selected system. In some areas, it is conceivable that the local demand can consume the coproduct produced by many closely located small plants; in other areas, the local market may only be able to absorb the coproducts from one plant. If the latter situation occurs, this either depresses the local coproduct market value or encourages the purchase of equipment to modify coproduct form or type so that it can be transported to different markets.

Flexibility in Operation and Feedstocks

Plant profitability should not hinge on the basis of theoretical maximum capacity. Over a period of time, any of a myriad of unforeseen possibilities can interrupt operations and depress yields. Market (or redundant commodity) variables or farm operation considerations may indicate a need to switch feedstocks. Therefore, the equipment for preparation and conversion should be capable of handling cereal grain and at least one of the following:

  • ensiled forage material;
  • starchy roots and tubers; or
  • sugar beets, or other storable, high-sugar-content plant parts.
Compliance with Environmental Regulations and Guidelines

Liquid and gaseous effluents should be handled in compliance with appropriate regulations and standards.

Initial Investment and Operating Costs

All of the preceding criteria impact capital or operating costs, Each criterion can influence production rates which, in turn, change the income potential of the plant. An optimum investment situation is reached only through repeated iterations to balance equipment requirements against cost in order to achieve favorable earnings.

Individual System Considerations

Design considerations define separate specific jobs which require different tools or equipment. Each step depends upon the criteria involved and influences related steps. Each of the components and systems of the plant must be examined with respect to these criteria Figure V-1 diagrams anhydrous ethanol production. The typical plant that produces anhydrous ethanol contains the following systems and/or components: feedstock handling and storage, conversion of carbohydrates to simple sugars, fermentation, distillation, drying ethanol, and stillage processing.

Feedstock Handling and Storage

Grain. A small plant should be able to use cereal grains. Since grains are commonly stored on farms in large quantity, and since grain-growing farms have the basic equipment for moving the grain out of storage, handling should not be excessively time-consuming. The increasing popularity of storing grain at high moisture content provides advantages since harvesting can be done earlier and grain drying can be avoided. When stored as whole grain, the handling requirements are identical to those of dry grain. If the grain is ground and stored in a bunker, the handling involves additional labor since it must be removed from the bunker and loaded into a grainery from which it can be fed by an auger into the cooker. This operation probably could be performed once each week, so the grains need not be ground daily as with whole grain

Roots and tubers. Potatoes, sugar beets, fodder beets, and Jerusalem artichokes are generally stored whole in cool, dry locations to inhibit spontaneous fermentation by the bacteria present. The juice from the last three can be extracted but it can only be stored for long periods of time at very high sugar concentrations. This requires expensive evaporation equipment and large storage tanks.
Belt conveyers will suffice for handling these root crops and tubers. Cleaning equipment should be provided to prevent dirt and rocks from building up in the fermentation plant.

Sugar Crops. Stalks from sugarcane, sweet sorghum, and Jerusalem artichokes cannot be stored for long periods of time at high moisture content. Drying generally causes some loss of sugar. Field drying has not been successful in warm climates for sugarcane and sweet sorghum. Work is being conducted in field drying for sweet sorghum in cooler climates; results are encouraging though no conclusions can be drawn yet.

Canes or stalks are generally baled and the cut ends and cuts from leaf stripping are seared to prevent loss of juice.

A large volume of material is required to produce a relatively small amount of sugar, thus a large amount of storage space is necessary. Handling is accomplished with loaders or bale movers.

Conversion of Carbohydrates to Simple Sugars 

Processing options available for converting carbohydrates to simple sugars are:

  • enzymatic versus acid hydrolysis;
  • high-temperature versus low-temperature cooking;
  • continuous versus batch processing; and
  • separation versus nonseparation of fermentable nonsolids.

Enzymatic versus acid hydrolysis. Enzymatic hydrolysis of the starch to sugar is carried out while cooling the cooked meal to fermentation temperature. The saccharifying enzyme is added at about 130° F, and this temperature is maintained for about 30 minutes to allow nearly complete hydrolysis following which the mash is cooled to fermentation temperature. A high-activity enzyme is added prior to cooking so that the starch is quickly converted to soluble polymeric sugars. The saccharifying enzyme reduces these sugars to monomeric sugars. Temperature and pH must be controlled within specific limits or enzyme activity decreases and cooking time is lengthened. Thus the equipment for heating and cooling and the addition of acid or base are necessary.

Acid hydrolysis of starch is accomplished by directly contacting starch with dilute acid to break the polymer bonds. This process hydrolyzes the starch very rapidly at cooking temperatures and reduces the time needed for cooking. Since the resulting pH is lower than desired for fermentation, it may be increased after fermentation is complete by neutralizing some of the acid with either powdered limestone or ammonium hydroxide. It also may be desirable to add a small amount of glucoamylase enzyme after pH correction in order to convert the remaining dextrins.

High-temperature versus low-temperature cooking. Grain must be cooked to rupture the starch granules and to make the starch accessible to the hydrolysis agent. Cooking time and temperature are related in an inverse ratio; high temperatures shorten cooking time. Industry practice is to heat the meal-water mixture by injecting steam directly rather than by heat transfer through the wall of the vessel. The latter procedure runs the risk of causing the meal to stick to the wall; the subsequent scorching or burning would necessitate a shutdown to clean the surface.

High-temperature cooking implies a high-pressure boiler. Because regulations may require an operator in constant attendance for a high-pressure boiler operation, the actual production gain attributable to the high temperature must be weighed against the cost of the operator. If there are other supporting rationale for havirrg the operator, the entire cost does not have to be offset by the production gain.

Continuous versus hatch processes. Cooking can be accomplished with continuous or batch processes. Batch cooking can be done in the fermenter itself or in a separate vessel. When cooking is done in the fermenter, less pumping is needed and the fermenter is automatically sterilized before fermenting each batch. There is one less vessel, but the fermenters are slightly larger than those used when cooking is done in a separate vessel. It is necessary to have cooling coils and an agitator in each fermenter. If cooking is done in a separate vessel, there are advantages to selecting a continuous cooker. The continuous cooker is smaller than the fermenter, and continuous cooking and hydrolysis lend themselves very well to automatic, unattended operation. Energy consumption is less because it is easier to use counterflow heat exchangers to heat the water for mixing the meal while cooling the cooked meal. The load on the boiler with a continuous cooker is constant. Constant boiler load can be achieved with a batch cooker by having a separate vessel for preheating the water, but this increases the cost when using enzymes.

Continuous cooking offers a high-speed, high-yield choice that does not require constant attention. Cooking at atmospheric pressure with a temperature a little over 200° F yields a good conversion ratio of starch to sugar, and no high-pressure piping or pumps are required.

Separation versus nonseparation of nonfermentable solids. The hydrolyzed mash contains solids and dissolved proteins as well as sugar. There are some advantages to separating the solids before fermenting the mash, and such a step is necessary for continuous fermentation. Batch fermentation requires separation of the solids if the yeast is to be recycled. If the solids are separated at this point, the beer column will require cleaning much less frequently, thus increasing the feasibility of a packed beer column rather than plates. The sugars that cling to the solids are removed with the solids. If not recovered, the sugar contained on the solids would represent a loss of 20% of the ethanol. Washing the solids with the mash water is a way of recovering most of the sugar.


Continuous fermentation. The advantage of continuous fermentation of clarified beer is the ability to use high concentrations of yeast (this is possible because the yeast does not leave the fermenter). The high concentration of yeast results in rapid fermentation and, correspondingly, a smaller fermenter can be used. However, infection with undesired microorganisms can be troublesome because large volumes of mash can be ruined before the problem becomes apparent.

Batch fermentation. Fermentation time periods similar to those possible with continuous processes can be attained by using high concentrations of yeast in batch fermentation. The high yeast concentrations are economically feasible when the yeast is recycled. Batch fermentations of unclarified mash are routinely accomplished in less than 30 hours. High conversion efficiency is attained as sugar is converted to 10%-alcohol beer without yeast recycle. Further reductions in fermentation require very large quantities of yeast. The increases attained in ethanol production must be weighed against the additional costs of the equipment and time to culture large yeast populations for inoculation.

Specifications of the fermentation tank. The configuration of the fermentation tank has very little influence on system performance. In general, the proportions of the tank should not be extreme. Commonly, tanks are upright cylinders with the height somewhat greater than the diameter. The bottom may be flat (but sloped for drainage) or conical. The construction materials may be carbon steel (commonplace), stainless steel, copper, wood, fiberglass, reinforced plastic, or concrete coated on the inside with sprayed-on vinyl. Usually, the tanks are covered to permit collection of the CO, evolved during fermentation so that the ethanol which evaporates with it can be recovered.

Many potential feedstocks are characterized by relatively large amounts of fibrous material. Fermentation of sugar-rich material such as sugar beets, sweet sorghum, Jerusalem artichokes, and sugarcane as chips is not a demonstrated technology and it has many inherent problems. Typically, the weight of the nonfermentable solids is equal or somewhat greater than the weight of fermentable material. This is in contrast to grain mashers which contain roughly twice as much fermentable material as nonfermentable material in the mash. The volume occupied by the nonfermentable solids reduces the effective capacity of the fermenter. This means that larger fermenters must be constructed to equal the production rates from grain fermenters. Furthermore, the high volume of nonfermentable material limits sugar concentrations and, hence, the beer produced is generally lower in concentration (6% versus 10%) than that obtained from grain mashes. This fact increases the energy spent in distillation.

Since the nonfermentable solid chips are of larger size, it is unlikely that the beer containing the solids could be run through the beer column. It may be necessary to separate the solids from the beer after fermentation because of the potential for plugging the still. The separation can be easily accomplished, but a significant proportion of the ethanol (about 20%) would be carried away by the dewatering solids. If recovery is attempted by "washing out," the ethanol will be much more dilute than the beer. Since much less water is added to these feedstocks than to grain (the feedstock contains large amounts of water), only part of the dilute ethanol solu- tion from the washing out can be recycled through the fermenter. The rest would be mixed with the beer, reducing the concentration of ethanol in the beer which, in turn, increases the energy required for distillation. Another approach is to evaporate the ethanol from the residue. By indirectly heating the residue, the resulting ethanol-water vapor mixture can be introduced into the beer column at the appropriate point. This results in a slight increase in energy consumption for distillation.

The fermenter for high-bulk feedstocks differs somewhat from that used for mash. The large volume of insoluble residue increases the demands on the removal pump and pipe plugging is more probable. Agitators must be sized to be self-cleaning and must prevent massive settling. High-speed and high-power agitators must be used to accomplish this.

The equipment for separating the fibrous residue from the beer when fermenting sugar crops could be used also to clarify the grain mash prior to fermentation. This would make possible yeast recycle in batch fermentation of grain.

Temperature control. Since there is some heat generated during fermentation, care must be taken to ensure that the temperature does not rise too high and kill the yeast. In fermenters the size of those for on-farm plants, the heat loss through the metal fermenter walls is sufficient to keep the temperature from rising too high when the outside air is cooler than the fermenter. Active cooling must be provided during the periods when the temperature differential cannot remove the heat that is generated. The maximum heat generation and heat loss must be estimated for the particular fermenter to assure that water cooling provisions are adequate.


Preheater. The beer is preheated by the hot stillage from the bottom of the beer column before being introduced into the top of the beer column. This requires a heat exchanger. The stillage is acidic and hot so copper or stainless steel tubing should be used to minimize cor- rosion to ensure a reasonable life. Because the solids are proteinaceous, the same protein build-up that plugs the beer still over a period of time can be expected on the stillage side of the heat exchanger. This mandates accessibility for cleaning.

Beer column requirements. The beer column must accept a beer with a high solids content if the beer is not clarified. Not only are there solids in suspension, but also some of the protein tends to build up a rather rubbery coating on all internal surfaces. Plate columns offer the advantage of relatively greater cleaning ease when compared to packed columns. Even if the beer is clarified, there will be a gradual build-up of protein on the inner surfaces. This coating must be removed periodically. If the plates can be removed easily, this cleaning may be done outside of the column. Otherwise, a caustic solution run through the column will clean it.

The relatively low pH and high temperature of the beer column will corrode mild steel internals, and the use of stainless steel or copper will greatly prolong the life expectancy of the plates in particular. Nevertheless, many on-farm plants are being constructed with mild steel plates and columns in the interest of low first cost and ease of fabrication with limited shop equipment. Only experience will indicate the life expectancy of mild steel beer columns.

Introducing steam into the bottom of the beer column rather than condensing steam in an indirect heat exchanger in the base of the column is a common practice. The latter procedure is inherently less efficient but does not increase the total volume of water in the stillage as does the former. Indirect heating coils also tend to suffer from scale buildup.

Rectifying column. The rectifying column does not have to handle liquids with high solids content and there is no protein buildup, thus a packed column suffers no inherent disadvantage and enjoys the advantage in operating stability. The packing can be a noncorroding material such as ceramic or glass.

General considerations. Plate spacing in the large columns of commercial distilleries is large enough to permit access to clean the column. The small columns of on-farm plants do not require such large spacing. The shorter columns can be installed in farm buildings of standard eave height and are much easier to work on.

All items of equipment and lines which are at a significantly higher temperature than ambient should be insulated, including the preheated beer line, the columns, the stillage line, etc. Such insulation is more significant for energy conservation in small plants than for large plants.

Drying Ethanol

Addition of a third liquid to the azeotrope. Ethanol can be dehydrated by adding a third liquid such as gasoline to the 190-proof constant boiling azeotrope. This liquid changes the boiling characteristics of the mixture and further separation to anhydrous ethanol can be accomplished in a reflux still. Benzene is used in industry as a third liquid, but it is very hazardous for on-farm use. Gasoline is a suitable alternative liquid and does not pose the same health hazards as benzene, but it fractionates in a distillation column because gasoline is a mixture of many organic substances. This is potentially an expensive way co break the azeotrope unless the internal reflux is very high, thereby minimizing the loss of gasoline from the column. Whatever is chosen for the third liquid, it is basically recirculated continually in the reflux section of the drying column, and thus only very small fractions of makeup are required. The additional expense for equipment and energy must be weighed carefully against alternative drying methods or product value in uses that do not require anhydrous ethanol.

Molecular sieve. The removal of the final 4% to 6% water has also been accomplished on a limited basis using a desiccant (such as synthetic zeolite) commonly known as a molecular sieve. A molecular sieve selectively absorbs water because the pores of the material are smaller than the ethanol molecules but larger than the water molecules. The sieve material is packed into two columns. The ethanol - in either vapor or liquid form - is passed through one column until the material in that column can no longer absorb water. Then the flow is switched to the second column, while hot (450° F) and preferably nonoxidizing gas is passed through the first column to evaporate the water. Carbon dioxide from the fermenters would be suitable for this. Then the flow is automatically switched back to the other column. The total energy requirement for regeneration may be significant (the heat of absorption for some synthetic zeolites is as high as 2,500 Btu/lb). Sieve material is available from the molecular sieve manufacturers listed in Appendix E, but columns of the size required must be fabricated. The molecular sieve material will probably serve for 2,000 cycles or more before significant deterioration occurs.

Selective absorption. Another very promising (though undemonstrated) approach to dehydration of ethanol has been suggested by Ladisch [l]. Various forms of starch (including cracked corn) and cellulose selectively absorb water from ethanol-water vapor. In the case of grains, this opens the possibility that the feedstock could be used to dehydrate the ethanol and, consequently, regeneration would not be required. More investigation and development of this approach is needed.

Stillage Processing

The stillage can be a valuable coproduct of ethanol production. The stillagc from cereal grains can be used as a high-protein component in animal feed rations, particularly for ruminants such as steers or dairy cows. Small on-farm plants may be able to directly use the whole stillage as it is produced since the number of cattle needed to consume the stillage is not large (about one head per gallon of ethanol production per day).

Solids separation. The solids can be separated from the water to reduce volume (and hence shipping charge) and to increase storage life. Because the solids contain residual sugars, microbial contaminants rapidly spoil stillage if it is stored wet in warm surroundings. The separation of the solids can be done easily by flowing the stillage over an inclined, curved screen consisting of a number of closely-spaced transverse bars. The solids slide down the surface of the screen, and the liquid flows through the spaces between the bars. The solids come off the screen with about 85% water content, dripping wet. They can drop off the screen into the hopper of a dewatering press which they leave at about 65% water content. Although the solids are still damp, no more water can be easily extracted. The liquid from the screen and dewatering press contains a significant proportion of dissolved proteins and carbohydrates.

Transporting solids. The liquid from the screen and dewatering press still contains a significant proportion of dissolved proteins and carbohydrates. If these damp solids are packed in airtight containers in CO, atmosphere, they may be shipped moderate distances and stored for a short time before microbes cause major spoilage. This treatment would enable the solids from most small plants to reach an adequate market. While the solids may easily be separated and dewatered, concentrating the liquid (thin stillage) is not simple. It can be concentrated by evaporation, but the energy consumption is high unless multiple-effect evaporators are used. These evaporators are large and expensive, and may need careful management with such proteinaceous liquids as thin stillage.

Stillage from aflatoxin-contaminated grains or those treated with antibiotics are prohibited from use as animal feed.
Distillers' solubles, which is the low-concentration (3% to 4% solids) solution remaining after the solids are dewatered, must be concentrated to a syrup of about 25% solids before it can be economically shipped moderate distances or stored for short times. In this form it can be sold as a liquid protein to be used in mixed feed or it can be dried along with the damp distillers' grains.

Disposing of thin stillage. If the distance from markets for the ethanol coproduct necessitates separating and dewatering the stillage from an on-farm plant, and if the concentration of the stillage for shipment is not feasible, then the thin stillage must be processed so that it will not be a pollutant when discharged. Thin stillage can be anaerobically fermented to produce methane. Conventional flow-through type digesters are dependent upon so many variables that they cannot be considered commercially feasible for on-farm use. Experimental work with packed-bed digesters is encouraging because of the inherent stability observed [1].

Another way to dispose of the thin stillage is to apply it to the soil with a sprinkler irrigation system. Trials are necessary to evaluate the various processes for handling the thin stillage, Because the stillage is acidic, care must be taken to assure that soil acidity is not adversely affected by this procedure.

Process Control

Smooth, stable, and trouble-free operation of the whole plant is essential to efficient conversion of the crop material. Such operation is, perhaps, more important to the small ethanol plant than to a larger plant, because the latter can achieve efficiency by dependence on powerful control systems and constant attention from skilled operators. Process control begins with equip- ment characteristics and the integration of equipment. There is an effect on every part of the process if the conditions are changed at any point. A good design will minimize negative effects of such interactions and will prevent any negative disturbance in the system from growing. Noncontinuous processes (e.g.,batch fermentation) tend to minimize interactions and to block such disturbances. The basic components requiring process control in a small-scale ethanol plant are cooking and hydrolysis, fermentation, distillation, ethanol drying system pumps and drives, and heat source.

Control of Cooking and Hydrolysis

Input control. All inputs to the process must be con- trolled closely enough so that the departures from the desired values have inconsequential effects. The batch process has inherently wider tolerances than the continuous process. Tolerances on the grain-water ratio can be fairly loose. A variation of ½% in ethanol content will not seriously disturb the system. This corresponds to about a 3% tolerance on weight or volume measure. Meal measurement should be made by weight, since the weight of meal filling a measured volume will be sensitive to many things, such as grain moisture content, atmospheric humidity, etc. Volume measurement of water is quite accurate and easier than weighing. Similarly, volume measurement of enzymes in liquid form is within system tolerances. Powdered enzymes ideally should be measured by weight but, in fact, the tolerance on the proportion of the enzymes is broad enough so that volume measure also is adequate.

Temperature, pH, and enzyme control. The temperature, pH, and enzyme addition must also be controlled. The allowed variation of several degrees means that measurement of temperature to a more than adequate precision can be easily accomplished with calibrated, fast-response indicators and read-outs. The time dependence brings in other factors for volume and mass. A temperature measurement should be representative of the whole volume of the cooker; however, this may not be possible because, as the whole mass is heating, not all parts are receiving the same heat input at a given moment since some parts are physically far removed from the heat source. This affects not only the accuracy of the temperature reading but also the cooking time and the action of the enzyme. Uniformity of temperature and of enzyme concentration throughout the mass of cooking mash is desired and may be attained by mixing the mass at a high rate. Thus, agitation is needed for the cooker. The temperature during the specific phases of cooking and hydrolysis must be controlled by regulating steam and cooling water flow-rates based on temperature set-points.

Automatic controls. An automatic controller could be used to turn steam and cooiing water on and off. The flow of meal, water, enzymes, and yeast could be turned on and off by the same device. Therefore, the loading and preparation of a batch cooker or fermenter could easily be carried out automatically. Safety can be ensured by measuring limiting values of such quantities as temperature, water level, pH, etc., and shutting down the process if these were not satisfied. Any commercial boiler used in a small plant would be equipped with simple, automatic controls including automatic shut-down in case certain conditions are not met. There is a need for an operator to check on the system to assure that nothing goes wrong. For example, the mash can set up during cooking, and it is better to have an operator exercise judgment in this case than to leave it entirely to the controls. Since cooking is the step in which there is the greatest probability of something going wrong, an operator should be present during the early, critical stages of batch cooking. If continuous cooking is used, unattended operation requires that the process be well enough controlled so that there is a small probability of problems arising.

Control of Fermentation

Temperature and pH control. Batch fermentation does not need direct feedback control except to maintain temperature as long as the initial conditions are within acceptable limits. For the small plant, these limits are not very tight. The most significant factors are pH and temperature. Of the two, temperature is most critical. It is very unlikely that the change in pH will be great enough to seriously affect the capacity of the yeast to convert the sugar. Fermentation generates some heat, so the temperature of the fermenter tends to rise. Active cooling must be available to assure that summertime operations are not drastically slowed because of high- temperature yeast retardation.

The temperature of the fermenter can be measured and, if the upper limit is exceeded, cooling can be initiated. It is possible to achieve continuous control of the fermenter temperature through modulation of the cooling rate of the contents. Such a provision may be necessary for very fast fermentation.

Automatic control. Continuous fermentation, like continuous cooking, should have continuous, automatic control if constant attendance by an operator is to be avoided.

The feasibility of continuous, unattended fermentation in on-farm plants has not been demonstrated, although it is a real possibility.

Control with attention at intervals only. The feasibility of batch fermentation with attention at intervals has been established. After initiating the cooking and hydrolysis steps, the operator could evaluate the progress of fermentation at the end of the primary phase and make any adjustments necessary to assure successful completion of the fermentation. This interval between the points requiring operator attention can vary widely, but is usually from 8 to 12 hours. Fermentation can be very fast - as short as 6 hours - but the conditions and procedures for reliably carrying out such fast fermentations have not yet been completely identified and demonstrated. The schedule for attending the plant should allow about 15% additional time over that expected for completion of the fermentation process. This permits the operator to maintain a routine in spite of inevitable variations in fermentation time.

Controls for Distillation

The distillation process lends itself well to unattended operation. Continuous control is not mandatory because the inputs to the columns can easily be established and maintained essentially constant. These inputs include the flow rate of beer, the flow rate of steam, and the reflux flow rate. These are the only independent variables. Many other factors influence column operation, but they are fixed by geometry or are effectively constant. Once the distillation system is stabilized, only changes in ambient temperature might affect the flow balance as long as the beer is of constant ethanol content. Sensitivity to ambient temperature can be minimized by the use of insulation on all elements of the distillation equipment, and by installing the equipment in an insulated building. Occasional operator attention will suffice to correct the inevitable slow drift away from set values. The system also must be adjusted for changes in ethanol content from batch to batch.

Distillation column design can aid in achieving stable operation. Packed columns are somewhat more stable than plate columns, particularly as compared to simple sieve plates.

Starting up the distillation system after shutdown is not difficult and can be accomplished either manually or automatically. An actual sequence of events is portrayed in the representative plant described at the end of this chapter. The process is quite insensitive to the rate of change of inputs, so the demands made on the operator are not great. It is important that the proper sequence be followed and that the operator know what settings are desired for steady-state operation.

Control of Ethanol Drying System

Operation of a molecular sieve is a batch process. As such, it depends on the capacity of the desiccant to ensure completion of drying. No control is necessary except to switch ethanol flow to a regenerated column when the active column becomes water-saturated. Water saturation of the sieve can be detected by a rise in temperature at the discharge of the column. This temperature rise signals the switching of flow to the other column, and regeneration of the inactive column is started immediately. The regeneration gas, probably CO, from the fermenter, is heated by flue gas from the boiler. The control consists of initiating flow and setting the temperature. The controller performs two functions: it indicates the flow and sets the temperature of the gas. Two levels of temperature are necessary: the first (about 250°F) is necessary while alcohol clinging to the molecular sieve material is being evaporated; the second (about 450° F) is necessary to evaporate the adsorbed water. Here again, the completion of each phase of the regeneration cycle is signaled by a temperature change at the outlet from the column. Finally, the column is cooled by passing cool CO, through it until another outlet temperature change indicates completion of the regeneration cycle. The controls required for a dehydration distillation column are essentially the same as those required for the rectification column.

Controls for Pumps and Drives

The pumps used in this plant can be either centrifugal or any one of a number of forms of positive displacement pumps. The selection of the pump for mash or beer needs to take into account the heavy solids loading (nearly 25% for mash), the low pH (down to 3.5 for the beer), and the mild abrasive action of the mash.

The pumps might be powered by any of a number of different motors. The most probable would be either electric or hydraulic. If electric motors are used, they should be explosion-proof. Constant speed electric motors and pumps are much less expensive than variable-speed motors. Control of the volume flow for the beer pump, the two reflux pumps, and the product pump would involve either throttling with a valve, recirculation of part of the flow through a valve, or variable-speed pumps. Hydraulic drive permits the installation of the one motor driving the pumps to be located in another part of the building, thereby eliminating a potential ignition source. It also provides inexpensive, reliable, infinitely variable speed control for each motor. Hydraulic drives could also be used for the augers, and the agitators for the cookers and fermenters. Since hydraulics are used universally in farm equipment, their management and maintenance is familiar to farmers.

Heat Source Controls

There are basically two processes within the ethanol production system that require heat: the cooking and the distillation steps. Fortunately, this energy can be supplied in low-grade heat (less than 250° F). Potential sources of heat include coal, agriculture residues, solar, wood wastes, municipal wastes, and others. Their physical properties, bulk density, calorific value, moisture content, and chemical constituency vary widely. This, in turn, requires a greater diversity in equipment for handling the fuel and controls for operating the boilers. Agriculture residues vary in bulk density from 15 to 30 pounds per cubic foot and the calorific value of oven-dry material is generally around 8,000 Btu per pound. This means that a large volume of fuel must be fed to the boiler continuously. For example, a burner has been developed that accepts large, round bales of stover or straw. The boiler feed rate will vary in direct proportion to the demand for steam. This in turn is a function of the distillation rate, the demand for heat for cooking (which varies in relation to the type of cooker and fermenter used-batch or continuous).

Emissions. Emissions controls on the boiler stack are probably minimal, relying instead upon efficient burner operation to minimize particulate emissions. If exhaust gas scrubbers or filters are required equipment, they in turn require feedback control. Filters must be changed on the basis of pressure drop across them which indicates the degree of loading (plugging). Scrubbers require control of liquid flow rate and control of critical chemical parameters.

Boiler safety features. Safety features associated with the boiler are often connected to the control scheme to protect the boiler from high-pressure rupture and to prevent burnout of the heat expander tubes. Alarm systems can be automated and have devices to alert an operator that attention is needed. For instance, critical control alarms can activate a radio transmitter, or "beeper," that can be worn by the farmer while performing other normal work routine.

Table V-l.  Heat Source Selection Considerations 

Table V-2.  Ethanol Plant Hazards

 Source: Fuel From Farms - A Guide to Small-Scale Ethanol Production