Agroetanol produces fuel ethanol from wheat

You are met with a lot of enthusiasm at the Swedish ethanol producer Agroetanol these days. The company is about to receive the green light for a major expansion project.

DATE 2023-11-28 AUTHOR Birgitta Lundblad

Agroetanol, a company that processes grain into ethanol for motor fuel, is planning to build a completely new plant with more than double the capacity of its existing factory in Norrköping in south-east Sweden. The expansion plans are a result of the growing demand for ethanol and, naturally, of Agroetanol’s successful operations.

But a necessary condition for the company’s expansion is the new customs rules that have recently been introduced in Sweden in order to protect domestic ethanol production. The new rules imply that the price of imported ethanol will be increased by approximately SEK 1.50 a litre. “We have been waiting eagerly for this decision,” says Dr. Kenneth Werling, Managing Director of Agroetanol. “The new situation means that we can become more competitive and further develop our business.”

As in many countries, Swedish politicians have come to realize the advantages of using renewable sources such as ethanol for motor fuels. Not only does ethanol reduce the emission of green-house gases, it also creates opportunities for Swedish agriculture to develop a new and satisfactorily profitable market. And, not least, it contributes to energy and economic security by reducing the dependence on oil, an important-enough advantage these days.

In Sweden, 5 % ethanol is presently mixed into practically all 95 octane petrol. This low blend of ethanol does not require any modifications to engines and the performance and running costs of the cars remain unchanged. So far, more than 80 % of this ethanol has been imported, mainly from Brazil where the costs of ethanol production are extremely low. By mixing 20 % petrol into the ethanol, it could be classified as a “chemical product” instead of an “agricultural product”, thereby attracting very low duties. But as from January 1, 2006 imported ethanol must be declared as pure ethanol which means greatly increased duties.

Interest in high places

With a production of 55 million litres in 2005, Agroetanol is Sweden’s largest and only full-scale producer of fuel ethanol. The company’s main owner is the Swedish Farmers Supply and Crop Marketing Association (Lantmännen). The plant in Norrköping has been fully operational since 2001.

“Our owners took a considerable risk in starting this operation,” says Kenneth Werling. “The plant was built in spite of a very limited experience in this area. They also had to invest in oil depots in Norrköping, Stockholm and Södertälje, where the mixing of ethanol and petrol takes place. At first the oil companies were not willing to take on this task.

The entrepreneurial spirit has paid off. After five years of operation, teething problems have gradually been solved, production efficiency has improved and capacity is now well above planned figures. Agroetanol also meets with ever-greater interest in high places. The Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson has paid several visits to the plant. He performed the first turf-cutting ceremony at the plant back in 1999, he inaugurated the factory in March 2001 and in November 2005, after the introduction of the new customs rules, he came to discuss his long term vision to phase out Sweden’s oil dependence by 2020.

Pure ethanol and valuable animal feed

At the plant in Norrköping, wheat is used as the main feedstock. Approximately 135 000 tonnes of wheat are needed for producing 50 million litres of ethanol.

Wheat comes to the plant by truck and is unloaded in an inlet funnel. The wheat is transported to cleaning and temporary storage via conveyors. Milling is done in hammer mills, where the whole grain is ground to flour. The flour is mixed with water to a slurry after which enzymes are added. The starch of the grain is then converted to a sugar solution, called mash.

Yeast is added to the sugar solution and the sugar is converted to ethanol and carbon dioxide. In order to separate the ethanol from the mash the distillation is carried out in two stages; in the mash column and in the concentration column. Finally, the water is completely removed in a molecular sieve and water-free ethanol is obtained.

The alcohol free mash, called stillage, goes to drying. The stillage, which is rich in protein and thereby a high-value animal feed, is dried with steam. The dried product is finally pelletized. Some 50 000 tonnes of protein feed is produced annually.

Alfa Laval has supplied a lot of process equipment to the plant in Norrköping including heat exchangers, condensers, evaporators, decanter centrifuges and tank cleaning equipment. “We need to focus on our production,” says Kenneth Werling. “Our task is not to lead the technical development. We have high expectations of suppliers like Alfa Laval when it comes to continuous technical development as well as support and guidance on how to utilize our equipment in the best possible way.”

Bright future perspectives

Alfa Laval fermenter coolers.The pre-planning of Agroetanol’s new ethanol plant is already in full swing and the final building decision is in the pipeline. If everything goes according to plan, the new plant will be up and running in 2008. The production capacity is planned to be 110–150 million litres of ethanol a year. The location is yet to be decided, Norrköping being one of three options. Kenneth Werling points out that there are many things that must be taken into consideration. The infrastructure, supply and price of raw material, manpower availability and environmental aspects are some of them.

"We are excited about the future and the potential in the ethanol field. We expect that the market for ethanol fuel will continue to grow both in Sweden and elsewhere. Already the standards we have in Sweden today with 5 % ethanol in the petrol means a market of some 300 million litres of ethanol a year and the ethanol part is likely to increase, maybe to 10 % in 2008. This development makes it possible for our farmers to continue their operations in a profitable manner, which in turn guarantees that we can keep the varied landscape that we have today.

And with its good supply of fresh water, Sweden is in a favourable position to develop its agriculture even further," Werling concludes.

 Alfa Laval / Agroetanol cooperation

Agroetanol has cooperated with Alfa Laval since the start and the company’s products and solutions are installed throughout the factory.

The same plate heat exchanger is used both for preheating of the slurry before starch conversion and for cooling of the mash. Energy efficient plate heat exchangers are used also as fermenter coolers and ten plate condensers are installed in the distillation and dehydration process.

In the feed drying step, three decanter centrifuges dewater the stillage before concentration in six compact AlfaVap plate evaporators. All plate heat exchangers handling fluids that contain particles and fibres are of the wide-gap type that provides a free-flow channel and prevents clogging.

“Producing ethanol has been a learning process for us since the day we started,” says Kenneth Werling, Managing Director of Agroetanol. “We appreciate the convenience of a domestic supplier such as Alfa Laval and we rely on continued strong support from them.”

Örjan Kindblom, Process Engineer at the plant, considers it important that Agroetanol’s process suppliers understand their operations so that they can help them find the best technical solutions both from an overall perspective and in details. “Therefore, I think that both parties benefit from long-term relations,” he says. “Our cooperation with Alfa Laval has developed in a positive way and we have together managed to solve teething problems and created a functional way to communicate.”

Rikard Krook, Marketing Manager, Sugar & Distillery at Alfa Laval, has visited a number of ethanol production plants around the world and is impressed by the level of technical competence of Agroetanol’s people. “It is stimulating to work with them and we hope they will continue to benefit from our comprehensive experience and technical development in the challenging field of ethanol production.”