Training next-generation ethanol plant operators

National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) graduates can pick and choose their jobs at ethanol bio-refineries from coast to coast, according to NCERC director John Caupert. People from all walks of life – from GEDs to PhDs – come to the center each year for best-in-class, cutting edge technology training.

By Don Mack, Siemens Energy & Automation, Process Automation Systems July 1, 2009

National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) graduates can pick and choose their jobs at ethanol bio-refineries from coast to coast, according to NCERC director John Caupert.

People from all walks of life — from GEDs to PhDs — come to the center each year for best-in-class, cutting edge technology training. Students learn the newest and most efficient ways to convert grain-based feedstock to ethanol.

Opened in 2003 at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, the 35,000 square-foot NCERC is the only research center of its kind in the world. The center facilitates the commercialization of new technologies for producing ethanol more effectively, resulting in improved yields and reduced costs. It also plays a key role in filling the growing need for qualified personnel to operate and manage biofuel refineries across the country.

While there is a growing demand for new workers in the alternative fuels industry, Caupert said there is a lack of qualified people to run the facilities. There are 143 ethanol plants in operation in the U.S. and approximately 57 new plants under construction, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

“The rapid growth of this industry was more than anyone could have ever predicted,” said Caupert. “The industry just grew more rapidly than the ability to train the people to fill those positions.”

The push to reduce the U.S. dependence on foreign oil is the catalyst for the dramatic growth, Caupert explained. The Energy Independence and Security Act (HR6) of 2007 calls for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022. This represents a five-fold increase in the amount of renewable fuels in the U.S. over the next 15 years.

State of the art

NCERC is the only organization in the world to offer both biofuels classroom training and hands-on instruction. The training includes year-long internships, seminars, five-day process training sessions and training for executives who run the plants.

Steve Ward is a research engineer at NCERC. He said when the plant opened in 2003 — well before the plant was commissioned — the original control system was chosen based on the lowest bid. Ward said that by the time the plant was commissioned, the control system was already outdated with limited support from the vendor. In 2006, NCERC decided a change was in order.

“We wanted a state-of-the-art control system that was representative of the industry,” Ward said. “Responsible for the control system, the biggest thing I was looking for was better support. Now we never have any trouble getting help when we need it.”

In 2006, NCERC began a 10-year partnership with Siemens Energy & Automation. The partnership represents hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, software and on-site simulation training. This includes a SIMATIC PCS 7 distributed control system donated by Siemens. According to Caupert, the partnership helps ethanol plant owners minimize risk by producing students with a real-world, technical understanding of how a plant operates.

Ward and Siemens engineers began software development on the DCS in September 2006. They worked together to engineer the system and accommodate new equipment at the plant. Ward was able to retain the existing 1,300 I/O points, drives, pumps and PROFIBUS PA-based instrumentation and install new differential pressure transmitters, radar level units, valve positioners and mass flow meters.

“It was a seamless transition when we re-commissioned the plant in 2007,” Ward said. “We just unhooked the existing computer and controller and switched over to the new computer and controller. We were able to communicate with most of the equipment at the plant in minutes.”

Real-world experience

Another reason NCERC decided to install the new system was to give students real world experience running an ethanol plant. “When the students leave here, there is a good chance they will be familiar with the controls equipment that they encounter in their plants,” Caupert said.

“The system is so simple that the students can teach themselves,” said Ward. “The online trending is one of most beneficial tools. We are able to pick up historical trends on the fly dating back a year or more. We can analyze what we have done in the past to help troubleshoot, as well as access all real-time critical control data. The students can look at the whole picture over the past few days or go back even further and see how things were operating.”

Students are also trained to work with the alarm capabilities of the system. Ward said the new system allows him to set alarms for the most critical process variables. Students can pull up a trend and view changes within the data points, and establish alarm levels and control.

Ward said the PROFIBUS platform is a great open standard because it is easy to configure. He is able to pull up diagnostic information from the instrumentation that helps improve the system’s maintenance capabilities.

“We have a lot of instrumentation in the plant measuring liquid flow throughout the system,” Ward said. “In the past, we would have to go around on an hourly basis with a clipboard, writing numbers down. It took a lot of time. We depend on those numbers to report to our clients whenever we run trials for them. By using PROFIBUS technology, we get all this data instantaneously from the DCS. This has saved time and reduced errors down to almost nothing.”

Graduates go to work

Recently, the newly constructed Center Ethanol plant in Sauget, IL hired 20 people who completed training courses at NCERC. Tony Newton, plant manager at Center Ethanol, said the training was essential for the employees to be able to effectively process approximately 19.2 million barrels of corn and produce 54 million gallons of ethanol annually when the plant opens. The plant will also produce 172,000 tons of dry distiller’s grain.

Newton had to hire people from other industries to staff the new plant. He said NCERC was a great resource and the logical place to start. “I knew the center offered a one-week training program to train displaced auto workers, and we built another two weeks of training on top of that just to go into more detail,” Newton said. “It is amazing how much you learn about the industry, processes, chemistry and maintenance techniques in the first week. We also developed a separate program with the center for lab technicians.”

During the three weeks, the students spent 25% of their time operating the pilot plant with the new DCS. Newton said none of the employees had previous experience with a DCS, so ease of use was important.

“It was a great tool for learning how to operate the process as well as better understanding of data collection and safety interlocks,” said Newton. “It was easy to comprehend how the different characteristics of the process were controlled.”

Newton said the trending capability of the DCS will contribute to the success of the plant. Operators have at least one month of historical data available instantly that can be loaded into an Excel spreadsheet, eliminating the need for time-consuming manual data entries. The employees worked with trending data at NCERC covering an entire year, according to Newton.

“If it was not for NCERC, we would have had to train them in house,” Newton said. “It would have been a tremendous amount of work and the training would not have been as thorough if we did it ourselves. The guys would definitely not be as ready as they are now to start up the plant.”

Partnership for the future

Caupert said the future for ethanol and other alternative fuels is bright. Because NCERC’s new DCS is expandable, it will enable him to implement the latest technology to keep students on the leading edge. Current plans include adding advanced process control to better use production assets. The center also plans to add smart motor control center capabilities that will decrease installation and commissioning times, and increase product diagnostics.

For every job that is created in a biofuels production plant there are 10 additional supporting jobs that are being created outside the plant. “These are high tech, high paying jobs, but there is a shortage of qualified personnel,” Caupert said. “Our graduates say they never would have been qualified for the position they were offered if they had not had the training at NCERC.”

“If a person comes out of college with a chemical engineering degree, that person is just one of many applicants standing in a long line for a job offer that never comes their way,” Caupert continued. “A 23-year-old person with an undergraduate degree and one year of training at NCERC goes to the front of that applicant line.”

Students train on the control system in the plant’s control room. The easy to understand screens help the students quickly grasp the ins and outs of controlling and monitoring all plant operations.

NCERC’s 35,000 square-foot research center at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, is the only one of its kind in the world.

There are 143 U.S. ethanol plants in operation and 57 new plants under construction. We need five times as much capacity for renewable fuels over the next 15 years.

Diagnostic information from instrumentation helps improve the system’s maintenance capabilities at the NCERC facility.

Author Information

Don Mack is a senior marketing specialist at Siemens Energy & Automation, Process Automation Systems division, and is responsible for the biofuels initiative. Mack has been with Siemens since 2001. He previously worked for Moore Process Automation Solutions.

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