This blog reports events and interesting tidbits from Rensselaer, Indiana and the surrounding area.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


The Chamber of Commerce held its monthly luncheon at Indiana Bio-Energy Company (IBEC), located in Pleasant Ridge. As I drove into the parking lot I noticed that a new 750,000 gallon storage tank was under construction. When it is completed, another one will be built.
 The lunch was in the new maintenance building. The table decorations were the three products that IBEC produces, ethanol, dried distillers grain (DDG), and corn oil. Several people could not resist making jokes about who had sampled the ethanol
 The maintenance building is not quite completed. It will replace a much smaller space in the main building.
After lunch we heard about IBEC, which was built in 2007. It is a fuel-only facility--the ethanol is only produced for fuel. When it was built, its capacity of 50 million gallons a year was large, but now plants twice as big are being built. The DDG is about 1/3 of the corn--it is what is left when all the starch is removed. The corn oil is the fat and is used for animal feed or for a source for biodiesel.  The plant began producing E85 a few months ago and, as reported in some other posts, IBEC will soon install a pump open to the public selling E10, E15, E30, and E85. (Everyone can use E10, cars after 2001 can use E15, but only flex-fuel cars can use E30 and E85.) The cost of the corn is about 80% of the cost of production.

Then it was time for a tour. The tour was probably the reason that this was the best attended Chamber lunch ever.
 We entered the main building and saw the control room from which the entire operation is run. All the equipment can be monitored and controlled from this room and its banks of computers. Every few hours a sample of output is taken to make sure that what is on the computer monitor is what is happening and any adjustments necessary are made to the process. Most of the time life is boring in the control room, but at those few times when there are problems, it can get very exciting.
 We then entered the production area outside the control room and this was an area in which photographs were not allowed. In this area was equipment that ground the corn to a fine consistency and then mixed it with hot water and enzymes to break down the starch. The starch molecule is made up of sugar units and it must be converted to sugar before it can be made into alcohol. Then the mix goes into three huge fermentation vats where yeast produces a corn beer with about 18% alcohol. When we were outside later we could see the vats. The three vats are used continuously and when the brewing is completed, the beer is piped into a fourth large tank.

The next step is to distill the beer, separating out the alcohol. It is done with heat which works because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. The vapor flowing from the first tank to the second is about 100 proof. A bit more processing in the second column, called a rectifier, and the result is 190 proof, which is the best one can do with distilling.
 I asked what this smaller tower did and was told that it extracted alcohol from the vapor that came out of the second tower. It is complicated.
 190 proof is pretty potent, but for fuel the alcohol needs to be 200 proof--pure alcohol. The three tanks shown below do some kind a process that I did not quite catch, filtering out the water molecules. Though the guide did a good job, the crowd was large and the equipment in many places was very loud, so it was hard to hear.
 We then left the alcohol story and moved on to see what happened to the part of the corn that was not starch. It was dried in two very large drying bins that rotated. This room was hot because the air in the bins was very hot. The water vapor extracted here went through a heat exchange to recycle heat and then it was vented trough the stack. This water vapor is one of the most noticeable things you see when you drive past the plant on the highway, especially in winter. (You can see the water vapor behind the vats in the sixth picture of this post.)
 The DDG is taken by conveyor to a large, dark room where it is dumped into piles. From there a loader moves it to a hole and from there it can be loaded onto trucks. The plant sells the DDG to distributors who then sell it to farms for cattle and poultry feed.
 All of the corn used in the plant is produced locally and all of it arrives by truck. About half of the ethanol is shipped via rail and about half via truck. When the alcohol is shipped out, it is mixed with 2% gasoline. That changes its tax status and makes it undrinkable.
 As we left the building with the piles of DDG we passed by some cooling towers. They are used to control the temperature of the fermentation vats.
One odd thing mentioned on the tour: Goose Island Beer, a small brewery in Chicago, sends its waste beer, the part of the vat that has all the yeast, to IBEC and IBEC distills it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the fascinating tour; I had no idea this processing went on at this plant.