The lab team members at POET ensure the quality of the fuel, feed and co-products that leave each biorefinery.
In the last two issues, Vital has started introducing the people who are the heroes of their local communities and of POET’s 27 Biorefineries. We’ve taken you through procuring the corn with POET’s commodities teams and operating the plant by introducing you to the operations teams. This issue, you’ll meet the Gate Keepers – the people who ensure that each and every ounce of ethanol, distillers grains, corn oil and CO2 are produced precisely to POET and industry standards.
Instead of wielding swords and shields, the Gate Keepers at POET are clad in lab coats and safety glasses. In their meticulous efforts day in and day out, the team members who work in POET’s 27 biorefinery labs can recognize a red flag with any tiny variation. Usually small variations and sometimes seemingly insignificant, these variations could cause a big upset later in the process.
There is no ‘almost’ in this group of team members. They are focused on quality to an ounce of perfection.
The Lab Teams
“I think the key word that describes my role is in my title – quality,” says Gwen Biersbach, Quality Manager at POET Biorefining – Big Stone, S.D. “A focus on quality allows me to look at how we do things from a perspective that desires consistency and accuracy in how we approach the production process.”
At each location, the lab collects over 125 samples per week, 52 weeks per year at 27 locations – 175,500 samples annually at the combined POET biorefineries, give or take a few. They are taken from 190 and 200 proof ethanol, distillers dried grains, distillers wet grains, syrup, fermenters, fermenter fill, corn flour, the centrifuge and the dryer.
And that’s not the end of it. Each of the 175,500 samples are analyzed and logged. Adjustments are made if necessary and potential problems are reported to the quality manager and plant manager. All of this is done to keep the plant meeting standards all day, every day.
Once the data is compiled and analyzed by the lab, it moves on to other team members at the biorefinery. This data can determine inefficiencies or spur a change to create an even more sustainable process. Reviews done by the plant supervisors, engineers, the quality manager, plant manager or general manager can determine if the plant operations are as efficient and sustainable as they possibly could be.
In collecting and analyzing these samples, the Gate Keepers of POET ensure the quality and consistency crucial in the renewables and feed industries. They understand the value of ethanol and the corn kernel to a scientific level and they see the impact the ethanol industry is creating in their home communities. It’s these folks who are responsible that the 1.6 billion gallons of ethanol shipped out annually from POET all meets specification.
Every product that comes out of the plant passes through a lab team member’s hands every day. They also keep a close eye on all aspects of plant production. Each sample that is taken is analyzed and tracked. If a wrong valve is left open or an ingredient missed, the lab will find it.
“There’s no lack of possible things that can happen in our plant that can cause big challenges,” says Michele Anderson, Quality Manager at POET Biorefining – Preston, Minn. “It’s how we manage through those challenges that make our plant a success.”
Good isn’t good enough
Though a successful plant is the main priority of every team member at the plant, POET’s culture statement “We always strive for excellence” shines through in this group. Good isn’t good enough. It’s always about optimizing and making things better than they were before.
“Our results are used to help maximize efficiency of the different aspects of the plant,” says Bill Tighe, POET Biorefining – Coon Rapids, Iowa’s Lab Assistant. “We are continually working to get the most out of every kernel of corn.”
“If we operate our plant with minimal variability, it allows the opportunities for optimization to be easier to detect,” says Biersbach. “Whereas, the focus on sustainability is a “big picture” goal and one that needs constant emphasis to continue ongoing improvement in an effort to use less water, increase our suite of renewable products and reduce energy inputs to name a few.”
The minimal variability comes from the considerable amount and frequency of samples that are taken from the plant. With an analysis run on each sample, the variability is slim as adjustments are made every single day to ensure consistency.
Scientist isn’t the most abundant job opportunity in rural America. Biersbach was well aware that her microbiology degree wouldn’t offer her many job prospects near her hometown. The ethanol industry made an impact on her life allowing her to come home and she recognizes the impact it’s having on others in the area as well.
“A couple decades ago, families were leaving production agriculture because commodity prices made it difficult to sustain a decent living,” Biersbach says. “The marketing opportunity that fuel ethanol has brought to the rural economy goes from farmers to implement dealers to retailers on Main Street.”
The lab team’s work goes much farther than the lab and the ethanol plant. They are making a difference in their hometowns and rural America in its entirety. They are the gate keepers. But they don’t remain inside those gates. They’re quick to champion the positives of the products they so diligently attend to far beyond those gates. Their passion for science now easily flows into a passion for the growth of renewable fuels and energy choices for consumers.
“I work in the ethanol industry because I believe in helping people to have energy choices,” says Anderson. “I believe in clean air, clean water and green place to live. I believe in helping our communities to prosper. Ethanol is behind all of that.”