By Barry Dalton
POET Biorefining-Laddonia is undergoing a 10-million-gallon expansion that will result in additional corn demand of 3 million bushels per year from area farmers.
“The expansion will bring our capacity close to 80 million gallons,” said POET General Manager Steve Murphy. “We’ll be purchasing over 25 million bushels every year.”
Murphy said that POET had been looking to expand for several years, but those plans were halted by a drought in 2012.
“The drought shelved our plans to expand for a long time because we had such a poor crop year,” Murphy said. “However, we are now in the process of completing the planned expansion and will be adding a couple of new jobs as well.”
The expansion is scheduled to be complete by early to mid-summer, weather permitting. The bioprocessing facility is adding a small building extension for equipment, another fermenter and another mill to grind corn into flour. Most of the expansion, though, will occur inside the existing plant.
Murphy said that the expansion is occurring at a good time. “We had a good crop year locally, both in terms of quantity and quality,” he said.
POET operates its plant 24/7, 365 days a year with about 40 employees. Its busiest months for corn receiving are at harvest time and in January as farmers defer into the new year for tax reasons or other considerations.
“There are a lot of January deliveries because there is a carry in the market,” explained Murphy. “If you sell right out of the combine to any grain buyer, you cut out a couple of steps. Farmers have to decide if they want to store their corn or soybeans and at what ratios. They also need to determine how they want to use the bin storage they have, and once their own bins are full, whether they want to bag it, sell it, or do something else with it.”
When a farmer sells at harvest time, as many do, the grain markets are usually 10 to 20 cents lower price than if they stored it in their own bins for a few months before delivery. POET and all elevators have higher bids in the future months. POET can only hold about 30 days’ worth of grind at any time.
“We need bushels to come continuously, so we incentivize farmers to sell throughout the year to keep corn flowing,” Murphy said.
Corn is ground and the starch is fermented at the plant to make ethanol for blending into gasoline. Generally, the plant mills the corn into a flour and then adds water, enzymes and yeast to ferment it. Yeast fermentation produces a kind of “beer” in about four days.
After the beer is created, the liquids and remaining solids are separated by boiling it in distillation. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water which allows it to be separated and purified. “Basically, this is a big ‘moonshine’ operation,” Murphy said.
The alcohol produced is similar to corn whiskey, it’s just not aged in barrels, flavored or refined to beverage grade, Murphy noted. The Laddonia biorefinery produces fuel grade ethanol, as well as byproducts such as feed for cattle and poultry, corn oil, and liquefied CO2 for food and beverages.
About a third of each kernel is left over after the alcohol making process has converted the starch into ethanol. What remains is fiber, protein, oil and minerals and nutrients, which is processed into animal feed. The feed that POET creates is branded as Dakota Gold, which is the company’s name for a premium version of Dried Distiller Grains with Solubles (DDGS).
The drying process for the DDGS generates the steam that can often be seen emanating from the plant, especially when it’s cold outside.
“It’s just like seeing your breath in winter,” Murphy noted. “Basically, everything coming out of our stack is steam coming out from the dryers. This is why you don’t see the steam in the summer.”
Nothing is wasted in the process as POET strives to be as green as possible, Murphy said. For example, the CO2 gas produced during fermentation is captured, compressed into a liquid and sold for carbonated beverage production to companies like Coke and Pepsi. This liquified CO2 is also used in industrial food processing.
POET also partners with an energy co-op, the Missouri Public Utility Alliance, to produce about double the electricity used on site for production.
“We supply electricity to the grid off of this property. It helps to provide electricity at a lower price and it’s greener,” Murphy said. “The plant runs 24/7 so we’re generating electricity constantly resulting in sustainably produced power all while providing lower-carbon fuel for your car.”
This is accomplished through a Combined Heat and Power process. MPU owns a turbine on site that takes advantage of POET’s boiler system.
“It’s like what you see at the [Audrain Generating Station],” Murphy explained. “We’re burning natural gas to turn a turbine, like a jet engine. Every jet engine has an exhaust and it’s hot. The hot exhaust goes to a boiler, and heats up water that generates steam. The steam is what we use to boil the ethanol in distillation. So those BTUs of natural gas get used twice. It’s a highly efficient process that makes this site more environmentally friendly and the products we sell greener at a better price than gasoline.”
POET primarily services farmers in the nine-county area of Audrain, Marion, Monroe, Ralls, Pike, Shelby, Montgomery, Boone and Callaway. The bioprocessing facility, which will celebrate 15 years of operation this year, was built in part through local investors—including many farmers.
“I’ve been hauling in here every day since it opened,” said Sturgeon farmer John Lorentzen as he waited in line in his grain truck. “I invested in this years ago, my father and I both did. It’s the best thing that’s happened for corn in central Missouri that there ever was.”
POET Commodities Manager Brad Callison said he’s worked at the plant since before it opened on Sept. 6, 2006. “In the last 14 years we’ve appreciated the price of local corn by about 20 to 25 cents per bushel due to our extra demand,” Callison said.
Photos by Barry Dalton