Crowning Achievements

Minneapolis-based Crown Iron Works is dedicated to continually improving its biodiesel process technology.
By Tom Bryan | May 01, 2004
It would be perfectly logical to assume that Crown Iron Works builds biodiesel plants.

The Twin Cities-based company has a rich history in iron casting and steel fabrication. It provided some of the structural steel for the tallest building in Minneapolis, the IDS Tower, along with the city's downtown walkways and the Metrodome, home of the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota Vikings. Couple this portfolio of work with 60-plus years of experience in oilseed processing, and this industrious 125-year-old company would seem perfectly capable of building just about anything.

But it generally doesn't.

Crown Iron Works is today a full-service engineering firm that provides process technology and equipment designs for oil and oilseed processing. Biodiesel process technology and production equipment is just one facet of the company's burgeoning Oleochemical Division, and an area Crown has heavily invested itself in.

In the biodiesel industry, Crown is probably best known for providing the process design and equipment for one of the nation's largest continuous-process biodiesel plants, West Central Cooperative, a 12-mmgy plant in Ralston, Iowa, built in 2001. Crown is now providing its biodiesel process design for two large-scale plants being built in Minnesota, the under construction 30-mmgy Minnesota Soybean Processors plant in Brewster, and the proposed 30-mmgy SoyMor plant in Albert Lea.

So how does an oilseed extraction and refining equipment supplier leap into biodiesel production in just a few short years? The simple answer is synergies-mutually beneficial commonalities between two similar processes-and working with clients that have access to oil and oilseed crushing facilities.

"The company's biodiesel work progressed out of its Oleochemical Division, which it acquired in 1988," said Jeff Scott, vice president of sales and marketing for Crown, and a 38 year veteran of the oilseed processing business. "It's fatty acids that you are dealing with, and methyl ester processing fell in line with what we were already doing."

Furthermore, Scott told Biodiesel Magazine, the growth of the U.S. biodiesel industry is being driven by companies with access to oilseeds, recycled vegetable oil and animal fats.

"When you have clients that are already crushing oilseeds for the same type of oil being used for biodiesel production, it sometimes makes sense to take that extra step," he said.

Ultimately, it's that "extra step" approach-and the willingness to adapt to change-that's kept Crown in business since 1878. In fact, the company has such an interesting history that a book was published about it in recent years. Among other things, the book chronicles the company's century-spanning metamorphosis from a Midwest steel casting company that served the needs of turn-of-the-century lumber mills, to a supplier of ornamental iron work, a provider of structural steel and, finally, an oilseed processing technology and equipment engineering firm.

The Metrodome was, in fact, Crown's last big structural steel job, completed over 20 years ago. Like a lot of U.S. steel product manufacturers, the company exited the structural steel fabrication business in the 1980s as Japanese steel and off-shore manufacturing became infamously tough to compete with.

Getting out of structural steel was not a drain on the company though. The decision allowed Crown to focus exclusively on the oilseed processing work it had been developing since the mid-1940s.

With a new, stronger focus on oilseed processing technology, the division grew rapidly, and the company's capabilities multiplied.
Mergers, expansions and international acquisitions over two decades built and diversified Crown into seven interconnected U.S. divisions, along with a wholly-owned subsidiary in England with joint ventures and other offices in Brazil, India, China, Mexico, Argentina, Russia, Ukraine and Honduras.

"Today, we operate in just about every country that has major oilseeds and edible oils to be processed," said Derek Masterson, a Crown sales engineer. "So, yes, you could say oilseed processing technology and equipment became our bread and butter."

Crown's seven divisions now include Preparation, Solvent Extraction, Oil Processing, Specialty (non-commodity oilseed extraction), Customer Service, R&D and Oleochemical. Biodiesel, of course, falls under the Oleochemical Division, and a talented team of engineers, scientists and sales people are dedicated to its development.

"Our philosophy is that it's their baby," Scott said about the team that developed the company's process technology. "The Crown team is very committed to the development and application of its biodiesel technology-from start to finish. We believe that there's a real need for it."
The company made its initial entrance into the biodiesel industry in the mid-1990s by focusing on methyl ester research and development.
"We made efforts to improve the technology, working closely with a major Midwest university," Masterson said, adding that Crown had designed several methyl ester plants for the detergent industry in the last decade for companies that were not necessarily interested in producing biodiesel for fuel use.

In the late 1990s, Crown was approached by West Central Cooperative, then a soybean processing facility that had built a small batch biodiesel plant in 1995.

"They came to us to find out how we could help them make their small plant run better," Scott said. "Instead of improving what they had, we suggested that they build a much larger facility-a continuous state-of-the-art plant."

Because West Central had an existing soybean crushing facility and a small-scale biodiesel plant, they were a hands-on customer with a strong idea of what they wanted from Crown.

"There was significant input on their side," Scott said. "We essentially took our methyl ester production technology and adapted it to their needs. The process we offered was modified based on a joint effort between our company and theirs."

West Central's 12-mmgy plant was built by Todd & Sargent with the cooperative acting as general contractor. After the plant was built, the companies formed an alliance, Renewable Energy Group (REG), to capitalize on the development, construction, operating and management experience they had gained through the project. The alliance now offers everything from assistance in site selection to construction oversight, safety training and management of biodiesel plants. Crown is not a partner in the alliance but is the group's process technology provider of choice and works closely with West Central on process improvements. Scott said the companies are "tight but not exclusively linked."

"REG really has everything it takes," Scott said. "They have the operations experience, the construction experience, the lab personnel, the quality control systems and the marketing capabilities to take a project from concept to reality.

He continued, "REG was instrumental in selling the 30-million-gallon biodiesel plant to SoyMor. REG was able to furnish the entire turnkey package SoyMor required."

Crown and REG find it mutually beneficial to use the West Central plant as a sort of testing ground to perfect the biodiesel production process.

"It is not uncommon for us to make changes at their request," Scott said. "Together, we have made alterations that have lowered their operating cost."

The Crown process features a fully continuous operation to obtain high yields in each phase of production and reduce emulsion losses, efficient recovery of excess alcohol and water to reduce emissions, and a glycerin treatment step to produce a standard crude glycerin. According to Masterson, the company's procedure pays strict attention to process safety when handling flammable solvents such as methanol.

The company differentiates its process from others in two ways. First, Crown differentiates itself from providers of batch production technology, which Scott claims is less cost effective than continuous process technology.

"Properly designed continuous plants are much less likely to produce material that is off spec," he said, adding, "There is nothing wrong with batch processing in general."

In differentiating itself from other providers of large-scale continuous process biodiesel technology, Crown touts its rich history in oilseed processing, its large investment in biodiesel research and development, its expertise and resources and its top-notch understanding of process safety.

"Our experience and track record with material handling and process safety really stands out," Scott said. "Crown's biodiesel plants are designed for maximum efficiency and safety. That's very important to both us and our clients."

He added, "Our experience reduces risk that is another thing that sets us apart. We have worked with a very large portion of the oilseed processing plants in the country. In fact, there are very few plants that we have not worked with-our reputation is well known."

With dozens of oilseed processing plant projects worldwide and two biodiesel plants in Minnesota preparing to utilize the Crown process technology, the company is as busy as ever this summer. Still, Crown is constantly seeking out new clients and looking around the corner for new opportunities for its Oleochemical Division.

Typically, Crown would consider projects that are 8 mmgy and above.

"Eight million gallons a year is about as small as we like to go," Masterson told Biodiesel Magazine. "Think of an 8-million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant being built today in an industry that is building 100 million gallon facilities. If you build too small, you will be at a cost disadvantage."

In fact, most of Crown's potential client inquiries are related to proposed biodiesel plants in the range of 10 to 30 mmgy. The timeframe for delivery of the design and equipment fabrication depends largely on the significance of the job.

"For a greenfield 30-million-gallon plant, it would take 12 to 14 months to build," Scott said. "It would take us five to six months to deliver the equipment. For an existing oilseed processing plant that already has some of the infrastructure, the time frame could be faster."
While virgin soybean oil is the most common biodiesel feedstock in the United States, Scott said any neutral, relatively clean oil will work well in the company's process.

"Whether you're using rapeseed, palm or tallow, the technology does not change," Scott explained. "We will provide an up front pretreatment if the feedstock does not meet certain specifications."

Crown offers a complete line of glycerin recovery equipment capable of producing a 99.7 percent pure product.
"Coproducts are very important to the bottom line of a plant and we do not ignore the non-biodiesel side of production," Masterson said. "We design plants that will produce the best quality coproducts based on our clients needs."

Crown is an ardent supporter of the biodiesel industry and a proud member of the National Biodiesel Board (NBB).
"We are an associate member of the NBB," Masterson said. "We make an effort to know everything we can about the industry. We have taken an active role with the association and developing product standards."

Looking into the future, Scott said, Crown is planning for significant growth in the biodiesel industry fueled by the construction of large-scale continuous plants.

"Just look at the ethanol industry," he said. "Look at the giant dry mills they are building now. The same thing will happen with biodiesel."
And Crown will be ready, Scott said.

"We think it is important to continually improve upon our existing process-to allow the process to evolve," he said. "Sometimes things are worth changing. We are constantly trying to improve our technology in order to stay ahead of the competition."
One thing that will not change is the company's dedication to seeing the biodiesel industry grow. Internationally, Crown is paying close attention to emerging markets for biodiesel. The United States, Asia and South America appear to be the most likely places for new development. Each market will offer unique opportunities and challenges.

"Petroleum and crude soybean oil prices are both at historic highs," Masterson said. "It would be nice to have high fuel prices and low soy prices to get the U.S. industry jumpstarted."

For now, the industry will have to continually explore new markets and low-cost feedstocks.
"I think you will see the industry increasingly turn to non-vegetable oil feedstocks," Scott said. "You have to consider the lowest-cost raw materials for production, so tallow and alternative oilseeds will likely stay in the mix."
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