Who could have imagine ethanol production was so exciting!

Driving cars fueled by old hot dog buns, is that really possible? Believe it or not, but that’s the case! On my new placement I work at a plant that produces ethanol for transport fuel ffabrikuse, and where for example hot dog buns are used as raw material.

As already mentioned in this blog, all seven trainees changed assignment a few weeks back. I swapped the chilled ready meals at Gooh with Agroetanol, a part of Lantmännen belonging to the Energy division. Agroetanol has a production plant located in Norrköping, Östergötland. During my initial time at this site, I have come to realize how awesome and interesting things this company is doing!

The Agroetanol plant was originally supposed to refine grain into ethanol to be used as fuel in vehicles. Over time, the organization has realized that some parts of their residues are valuable by-products. Firstly, there’s “drank” (DDGS), used for animal feed. For the past few months, the plant has also been modified to capture carbon dioxide released in the process and then convert it into carbonic acid. So then we have:

Grain →  Ethanol + Drank (Swedish word and means feed content) + Carbonic acid

Further on the organization realized that instead of using just grain as raw material, they should be able to have other raw material inputs as well. Said and done, now a bit of anything that contains any form of starch is sent into the process (bread, dough, pasta, crisp bread, flour, beans, you name it!). One day when I went to look at the production handling the alternative raw materials going into the “normal flow”, one of the employees loaded some kind of flour from a large pile into the ordinary flow. Next to the pile of flour was an even bigger pile of old hamburger and hot dog buns. It turned out that the pile of flour in fact was “sawdust” from when forming crispbread! These bread crumbs are shipped in large quantities by train to the plant in Norrköping and are then sent into the production process (the piles you see in the pictures are, in other words, only small fractions of everything used).
Making use of flour from crispbread is not the most interesting phenomena around; the coolest thing is that their machine that separates commodities such as bread from other materials is also capable of separating plastic bags and cardboard! Next up into the machine to show me how this is done were boxes of lentils that there was something wrong with, they might have been mislabeled, batches that were sorted out for some reason or expired goods, etc. These pallets of goods not conforming to standards is something that companies often otherwise have to pay to send to landfill. It is thus usually not taken care of, even if it is done in some cases. By taking care of waste products in our and others’ food industry, we show that at Lantmännen  we really take responsibility from field to fork in the production chain. A waste product from an industry becomes a raw material for the next – That’s what I would call climate smart!

We then have:
Grain + Pasta + hot dogs + buns + dough + breadcrumbs etc. →  Ethanol + Drank (feed content) + Carbonic acid

A discussion about this plant and producing Ethanol in general is that “you take the food from the poor”. This statement refers to using grain to produce fuels. I was a bit skeptical of ethanol as a fuel in the beginning of the project. After all, grain that we might have been able to eat is used for making fuels? I decided to read up a little on the subject of ethanol production and here is one insight:

Bad- vs. good ethanol – This notation made it a little easier for me to nuance the discussion surrounding ethanol. It is possible to distinguish ethanol based on its raw material, its production process and its environmental impact. It sounds a bit obvious but is not always so: raw materials (such as grains) have totally different environmental, economic and social impact depending on how they are grown. For example if the grain is grown ineffectively in areas that require much watering or similar then it has a greater environmental impact than grains grown under favorable conditions. The same applies if, for example, vegetation has been removed to recover growing areas. Also the process of producing ethanol itself varies in environmental impact. Thus, some ethanol has lower environmental impact than ethanol produced in a “dirty” way.

As you might imagine from reading this text, I am primarily interested in the flow of alternative raw materials. I think it’s so incredibly clever when something that before was not fully used, now generate added value in the form of a propellant (among other things) that can replace fossil-dependent ones! Imagine driving a car or truck on old cinnamon and hotdog buns, a bit of a dream come true!

/ Pauline Lidberg, a curious trainee who walks around in flour asking questions.