Automation vendors boost biofuels

Producers and control system suppliers exist in an optimize-or-die world. That mentality is spreading to other industries.


If you were awake during most of 2008, you saw some unprecedented movement in all sorts of areas, including fuel and food products. Biofuels were in the center of this mix. Control system vendors are charging headlong into these crazy industries, trying to carve out shares before they’re left behind.

Let’s think about what happened during 2008:

  • We saw oil prices climb and fall like never before;

  • General commodity prices went haywire;

  • Global product distribution patterns showed seismic shifts; and

  • Biofuels and other alternative energies were on center stage.

Biofuel producers who were making primarily corn-based ethanol had to grow up fast when they found themselves thrust into the limelights.

Bioethanol refineries sprang up all over the place, and companies that build process control systems jumped into the fray as the next big thing. This should be no surprise, as there aren’t a whole lot of new chemical plants or oil refineries being built in North America these days. Greenfield projects in traditional process industries are few and far between. Emerson Process Management, Siemens, Honeywell Process Solutions, Pavilion, Invensys Process Systems, and others have all staked claims in this field at home and abroad. For example:

  • Siemens has partnered with Southern Illinois University (Edwardsville) to provide training to producers and students in the ethanol industry.

  • Emerson Process Management held a Biorefinery Summit in Madison, WI, to discuss new technical developments and the coming market climate in 2009.

  • Honeywell has partnered with NSE Biofuels for a research facility in Finland to work with wood residues as a feedstock.

  • The list goes on.

All this activity has worked to producers’ advantage, as these companies have invested heavily to develop resources to help producers improve their processes. As costs and prices got closer, process optimization was paramount to staying in business. But there are problems. Some plants were located and sized based on the communities they served, not with larger global energy issues in mind. Those that do not have optimal transportation arrangements and markets for feedstocks, byproducts, and final products already have been hurt.

The ongoing challenge for producers, chemical engineers, microbiologists, and control system vendors will be to find ways to implement new processes that have yet to be proven commercially?or even invented. Cellulose-based feedstocks are promising but far from a solution for now or years down the road. One startup company, Virent, has turned sugar into gasoline using a catalytic process. Researchers there believe they will be able to create custom molecules with any desired number of carbon atoms. Producers that still want to be in business when those processes are ready to commercialize will have to keep their heads above water for some years to come. Finding ways to make the processes we have now more efficient is key for the moment and foreseeable future.

Of course that situation is no different than many other industries. Biofuels producers are not the only companies that are in an optimize-or-die world. During recessionary times, markets get smaller and competition heats up. We have yet to see how far China will go to keep its economic growth engine running. That government is highly motivated and would consider it a disaster to see its growth rate fall to 8%.

The need for effective process automation is greater now than ever. Given our shrinking qualified labor pools, probable carbon taxation, commodity price fluctuations, and who-knows-whatever other hazards are out there in 2009, survival will not happen by chance.

—Peter Welander, process industries editor, ,
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