Minnesota Soybean Business

Energy boost: Flourishing plasma technology changing the biodiesel conversation

Crop farming is the definition of risk and reward. From weather to market prices to unforeseen pandemics, it is almost impossible to calculate the end result. But through the uncertainties, farmers can hedge their risk by diversifying their enterprises, creating a strategic business plan or pooling their resources.

Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council (MSR&PC) CEO Tom Slunecka says funding checkoff research projects takes the same complex thinking, especially when it comes to commercialization. Enter Plasma Blue.

“MSR&PC started the original research on a new biodiesel process technology roughly four years ago,” Slunecka says. “By working in partnership with the University of Minnesota, we were able to create a new piece of technology that would help reduce biodiesel production costs and improve the long-term viability of our biodiesel plants.”

But just as farming has progressed, Slunecka says the investment of soybean checkoff dollars has followed suit.

“The farmer leaders who oversee the direction and use of checkoff dollars are some of the most forward-thinking individuals,” he says. “Year-after-year, they continue to think outside the box on how they can increase the demand for soybeans, grow the industry and ultimately impact their farm operation. Commercialization of products has been a new concept when it comes to research projects for checkoff groups, but in today’s world, we have to be smarter on how we’re investing those dollars.”

Slunecka, who has seen the work of soybean checkoff investments since joining Minnesota Soybean as CEO in August 2012, says just as farming has become increasingly complicated, so have checkoff investments.

“Our farmers weigh the rewards against the risks when determining which investments will have the biggest return on the checkoff investment,” he says.

Jim Willers, who was elected onto the MSR&PC board in 2005, says it is the job of the Council to understand the challenges, risks and possibilities and make the best decision for all soybean farmers.

“Throughout the year, we are presented a variety of research projects, from production to new uses. When the new biodiesel technology was presented to our group, it was nothing we had seen before,” says Willers, a Luverne farmer. “We did our due diligence and knew this project could really be something special for Minnesota’s farmers and the whole biodiesel industry. The board decided it was the best use of checkoff dollars.”

The Council uses a stage-gate review process to ensure the projects have a real chance of being commercialized and checkoff dollars aren’t wasted.

“We have to get products to the farm gate and products to the consumer that will ultimately make a difference for U.S. agriculture,” Slunecka says.

Mike Youngerberg, MSR&PC senior director of product development & commercialization, says Plasma Blue can do just that.

“The hope is this new biodiesel process technology will be embraced not only domestically but globally,” he says. “By reducing the biodiesel production cost, we can deliver a high-quality product to consumers while increasing the demand for soybeans. That is our ultimate end goal.”

Plasma Technology

Plasma Blue, which is now owned by MSR&PC, is a unique reactor technology for use in the transesterification process within a biodiesel plant. By using readily available standard electricity, this technology provides operational cost savings while more fully converting oils and reagents used in the biodiesel production process.

Plasma Blue Chief Technology Officer Seg Niebuhr has been instrumental in
getting the newest 1.5 million gallon unit of Plasma Blue up and running.

“Plasma technology uses electricity to excite the molecules as they pass through the reactor, which in turn, causes an improved intimate contact between the molecules,” Slunecka says, adding it can be conducted at room temperature, leading to a reduction of natural gas usage. “This technology drives the reaction faster and in doing so it delivers a more complete conversion when making biodiesel.”

Slunecka says one of the many benefits of using this technology is it allows biodiesel plants to remain competitive.

“Using plasma technology allows users to use less expensive catalysts, in turn, reducing the cost per every gallon produced,” he says. “Along with being competitive, plants may be able to enhance their facility Carbon Intensity score, thereby, taking advantage of new trends in the industry.”

Plasma Blue can be used in existing biodiesel plants, greenfield biodiesel plants and even ethanol plants.

“There are many additional benefits to incorporating the technology into a biofuels plant,” Youngerberg says. “The technology has a small footprint, is easy to integrate into existing control systems and processes and requires minimal downtime to install, resulting in a plant being able to expand without a large capital investment. For new plants, the technology can lower its overall physical footprint and installation or construction efforts.”

AMS CEO Tom Slunecka (right) spoke with then-ASA CEO Ryan Findlay about the  Plasma Blue technology.

The launch

In late January, both Slunecka and Youngerberg, along with a group of farmer leaders, traveled to the National Biodiesel Conference in Tampa to unveil Plasma Blue and the latest technology, giving plant owners, industry leaders and other attendees a firsthand look at the machine. Their booth became the talk of the town.

“We displayed a 1.5-million-gallon transesterification process on a skid that was roughly 5-foot by 7-foot long,” Youngerberg explains. “Within that skid was everything you need to do that part of the process. It’s a dramatic reduction in footprint size for plants and a dramatic reduction in the capital needed to deploy this technology in their plant.”

One of the most common misconceptions Slunecka debunks is the perceived difficultly installing the plasma technology.

“It’s a fast, easy integration, Slunecka says.

Youngerberg says unveiling Plasma Blue and the technology at the National Biodiesel Conference only made sense. MSR&PC maximized its moment.

“The conference brings in top leaders within the U.S. biodiesel industry,” he says. “Minnesota has always shown to be a leader in the biodiesel industry. This is just one more example of how we’re trying to help the industry to help U.S. agriculture.”

But Slunecka says showcasing Plasma Blue at the National Biodiesel Conference was only the beginning. The Plasma Blue future looks bright with the team primed to sell units and meet with investors.

“Our short-term goal is to sell this technology across the Midwest,” he says. “In order to ensure this technology is readily available, we are working to match our checkoff investments with industry partners to guarantee we have the capabilities to do this successfully.”

Today, the unit is undergoing its final stages of quality assurance testing.

“We are eager to see this technology placed in its first fully operational plant,” Slunecka says. “All of our hard work will come to fruition.”

To learn more about Plasma Blue, visit plasma-blue.com.


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