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Fueling Up

When you think about gasoline and octane, it might conjure sensations of power and speed. Auto manufacturers have designed compact turbocharged engines for decades that continue to push the boundaries of balancing fuel efficiency with the human desire for horsepower. The quest to do more with less doesn't stop with the combustion equipment beneath the hood. In the past several years, Flint Hills Resources has proven that it's possible to take the same approach with fuel.

After decades of experience in the refining business, Flint Hills Resources acquired its first two ethanol production facilities in Shell Rock and Menlo, Iowa, in 2010 followed by an additional five plants over the next four years.

”Similar to petroleum,” said Sheryl Corrigan, Director of Environmental Health & Safety for Koch Industries, ”the value of ethanol is greater than the products that help create it. From day one, our vision was to get the most from every atom of the corn kernels we process, and operate as safely as possible.”

Ironically, that meant not hitting the gas pedal on production from the start. Instead, the company conducted engineering studies to identify opportunities for improvement. ”We thoroughly evaluated safety, equipment design, reliability and environmental compliance,” noted Corrigan. ”Then we made the necessary upgrades to allow the plants to run at full capacity.”  

Project screener Mike Sticklen was one of the employees who made the transition to Flint Hills Resources when the company purchased the Iowa plants. ”Flint Hills really put their money where their mouth was,” recalls Sticklen. ”There wasn't a second thought about idling production until we got safety and performance to the level that was needed.”

Corrigan agrees that safety is top priority throughout the company. ”That's why one of our first steps was to perform preventive maintenance on all of our tanks,” she explained. “It was an extensive investment, but we were not willing to compromise.”

In addition to safety improvements, the company also installed proprietary process technology at several plants that has been successful at squeezing more ethanol out of every kernel of corn than the facilities’ previous methods. Proteins and oil from the corn that are not required for ethanol production are instead used for animal feed ingredients that the business manufactures.

”We’re creating more resources from corn than what it's capable of providing on its own,” explained Sticklen. ”We're using data to run our plants more efficiently, and bringing science and technology to move the industry forward.”

The company has invested heavily in improving plant reliability and increasing production capacity. As further proof of its commitment to creating value, Sticklen points to Flint Hills Resources’ current efforts in Beatrice, Nebraska.

Through a joint venture with Benefuel, Inc., the Duonix Beatrice biodiesel plant will soon flip the switch on the first commercial-scale use of an innovative technology that expands the range of feedstocks available to make biofuel. The use of lower cost feedstocks, such as fats and used vegetable oil, may help improve the cost-competitiveness of biodiesel production.

As Sticklen ponders these advancements and what is next, he is filled with anticipation. “We're bringing fundamentals to biofuels and animal feed ingredients that will enable technology breakthroughs now and in the future. To me, that’s really exciting.”