FEECO International provides a range of customized engineering, equipment manufacturing and construction services for the power/utility, paper, fertilizer, chemical processing, mining and other related industries around the world. David Soyka reports on synergies developed from over a half century of engineering problem solving that add innovative value to a re-vitalized ethanol industry.
Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can bring new tricks to different dogs. Since 1951, Green Bay, Wis.-based FEECO International has solved manufacturing process problems with solutions ranging from high quality machinery to complete turnkey operations. The company has become a world-leading manufacturer of thermal processing equipment and systems. “We specialize in turning problems into opportunities to improve customer manufacturing efficiencies,” says Lee Hoffmann, vice president and general manager.
FEECO expertise specifically addresses:
• agglomeration processing that turns fine material into granules or briquettes for reuse, employing a range of disc pelletizers, rotary drums, pin mixers, pug mills, compactors and briquetting equipment;
• thermal processing that dry, cool, calcine or otherwise thermally treat material using rotary-based machines;
• process recycling systems that turn waste products into revenue-producing products and/or convert product or by-product into a more easily handled form;
• granular fertilizer systems, which include inorganic (e.g., sulfuric and phosphoric acids, ammonia, potash) and organic biowaste and waste-to-fertilizers conversion (e.g., ammonium sulfate generated by nickel refineries);
• material handling systems that move product faster and at lower cost using a range of high quality belt conveyers, bucket elevators, steep incline conveyors, staking conveyers along with various conveyer accessories.
“Basically, we design systems that manage by-products of industrial processes and convert them into some other kind of marketable product,” Hoffman explains.
He emphasizes that FEECO doesn’t sell products, it develops custom solutions to address customer problems and needs.
“We fabricate the vessels and other components of the manufacturing system, of course, but what we offer customers is a proprietary design of technology that is tailored to a specific application that benefits the customer with improved operating and energy efficiencies.”
However, one significant domestic opportunity is the growing expansion of the ethanol industry, driven in part by growing consumer and government interest in non-fossil fuels to supplant and perhaps eventually replace petroleum products. Ethanol production results in a number of byproducts that require the same processes used in the fertilizer industry. “It’s a natural fit for us,” Hoffmann explains. “There’s a lot of crossovers in the technologies.”
Of course, ethanol has been an alternative fuel source since the first energy crisis of the 1970s, but Hoffmann believes the current interest this time has longer legs. “Up until recently, ethanol was manufactured primarily by farmers and small agribusinesses, with the average plant producing about 10 million gallons a year. What’s different is that starting five, six years ago, larger industries started getting involved, and today the average plant produces 55 million gallons a year. That’s a trend likely to continue as state and federal subsidies and tax credits make ethanol a more attractive business. And, as the price of gas rises, and consumer demand for less expensive alternatives increases, there’ll be even more economic incentives for big corporations to invest in ethanol.”
Indeed, a recent Missouri Department of Economic Development report projects $542 million in economic activity associated with the expansion of ethanol and biofuels industries in the state through 2013. And, auto giant General Motors unveiled plans this past February to partner with Colorado to build 40 new ethanol-fueling stations across the state by the end of 2007. Similarly, Michigan announced that it will construct 1,000 ethanol and biodiesel pumps by the end of 2008. Consequently, as demand increases and facilities are built to satisfy that demand, Hoffmann predicts that ethanol producing as much as 100 to 120 million gallons a year is not that far away.
One way in which the company brings value to the industry is in its development of a versatile, more energy efficient system to process distillers’ dried grains with solubles (DDGS) from the ethanol process. With more than 40 years’ experience designing and fabricating counter-flow rotary drum coolers and rotary dryers, the company has introduced the counter-flow rotary cooler for DDGS to the ethanol industry, having demonstrated expertise and understanding of the subtle difference between rotary drum counter-flow coolers and co-flow dryers. FEECO combines this expertise with a reputation for robust construction to provide an efficient, effective counter-flow cooler.
Counter-flow cooling provides inherent advantages that absolutely cannot be achieved with alternate approaches. Counter-flow cooling is recognized as more efficient and effective than cross-flow or co-flow cooling, including fluid bed and negative lift systems.
Counter-flow cooling benefits include:
• Improved product quality
• Lower DDGS discharge temperature
• Lower operating costs
• Less cooling air required
• Reduced storage problems (mold, mildew, etc)
• High reliability and low maintenance
• Reduced dryer energy requirements
Another important product is the rotary dryer system; more efficient and robust than any other dryer currently being used in the ethanol industry. The company’s drying systems include refractory lined combustion chambers, burner, combustion blower, control system with flame safety and pre-piped fuel trains for easy installation.
The internals of the FEECO rotary dryer use a unique double bend design to maximize the air-to-material (DDGS) contact thus creating a more efficient dryer that reduces fuel consumption. The dryer feed chute is offset to maximize the area where the hot gases enter the dryer from the combustion chamber, which reduces the speed of the hot gases making it more available for drying thus increasing the efficiency.
Some of the superior design features of the FEECO rotary dryer include gear drive for smoother running and longer life than chain driven dryers, free floating mounted tires to account for thermal expansion from the process, and a single thickened section under the tires and gear for increased structural rigidity as opposed to two thinner plates fused together.
Because of its experience in material handling, mixing technology, exhaust gas handling, and control systems, FEECO can package the rotary cooler and dryer into a complete system that is more energy efficient and versatile than current systems. All engineering disciplines, chemical, mechanical, electrical, structural and civil, are part of FEECO’s in-house technical team.
FEECO also has a technology center with testing facility and pilot plant in which it is currently developing new technologies that will increase the drying efficiency of DDGS, syrup, centrifuge distillate, etc. and create new beneficial uses of DDGS.
FEECO International, Inc has been supplying equipment and systems to companies globally for 55 years with equipment such as rotary dryers, rotary coolers, pin mixers, disc pelletizers, material handling equipment, process systems, rotary calciners, rotary coolers/dryers, rotary kilns and more.
FEECO is convinced that the ethanol business model can be financially improved and has the ability and expertise to prove it to anyone who wants to work with them. Everyone out there is building ethanol plants with their main revenue stream coming from the sale of ethanol. The by-products of the plant either show up in the expense line or have minimal impact on their income statement. FEECO looks to see if it can generate new and innovative products that really add to the bottom line. Often times it can go beyond commodity products and capture market changing technology at the same time. FEECO’s 50 years in changing industries comes in handy in using the synergy from one industry and adopting it into the ethanol industry. The company already has developed fertilizers, animal feeds, cat litters, and carbon credit products from other wastes. It is just transposing and redeveloping the process in this industry.
FEECO is convinced that the energy balance in the ethanol industry has room for dramatic improvements and currently is working diligently on a new dryer conception. In addition to the rotary cooling and drying industry, two other drying technologies may also streamline the byproducts into more efficient conversion to solids. This testing is currently taking place in a lab environment with commitments for commercialization set for 2008. If the company is proven right on the first of these technologies, it will significantly alter the energy balance. If it is right on the second technology, it will have industry shattering results.
FEECO also put its own products and engineering to use in helping to establish a sister company called ENCAP, which produces seed establishment, erosion control and soil management products and processes for turf, agricultural and retail lawn and landscape markets. The mulch-based product line uses FEECO developed agglomeration processes to offer solutions that help repair bare spots, establish new turf, control erosion, and condition the soil. The entire line features the AST Advanced Soil Technology, a patented technology that releases water-soluble PAM (WSPAM) into the soil. ENCAP’s completely automated Green Bay production plant built in 1999 covers 20,000 square feet and has received numerous awards for energy efficiency and green building designs.
A privately owned company that has grown organically, FEECO employs both a dedicated sales staff and manufacturing reps to market its services globally. “We have different competitors in different market segments, but everywhere we do business we are recognized both for the overall value of our innovative technologies and the engineering expertise that makes the most efficient use of those technologies to meet customer needs,” Hoffman concludes.