Fermentation Hits the Road

A semi trailer that has been converted into a mobile fermentation process trailer.

February 3, 2022

Innovation can take on many forms, but have you ever heard of a mobile fermentation trailer? Interstates recently completed the controls and automation programming of a brand-new mobile fermentation process trailer for Sioux Falls-based Nelson Baker Biotech and Lallemand Biofuels & Distilled Spirits of Milwaukee, WI. Interstates provided the electrical control panel and programmable logic controller (PLC) and Human Machine Interface (HMI) programming for the trailer.

Going Mobile

While the equipment installation and automation programming weren’t unusual for Interstates, it was unique to work on a project that would soon drive away from the job site. The 53-foot enclosed semi-trailer houses four fermentation tanks along with a yeast propagation tank and chiller. The work was completed in rural Garretson, SD, but the trailer’s mobility opens up a world of opportunities for Lallemand.

Jim Vortherms, Automation Manager at Interstates, says, “Lallemand’s goal was to have a self-contained trailer they could take to client locations to do test runs on mash from an ethanol plant with their yeast, testing the conversion of the mash to alcohol. It’s kind of unique to do this in a mobile situation – the first of its kind that I’m aware of.”

Testing conversions on site gives Lallemand’s clients a clear look at how their product performs. “Having a portable fermenting unit helps them demonstrate how their particular enzymes and yeast benefit the fermentation process,” says Daniel Wunderink, Project Engineer at Interstates. Connor Auch, Applications Programmer at Interstates, adds, “Giving them the functionality they needed was our main concern. They needed to capture temperature set points and control the timing on valves opening and closing. This helped them enhance their process, so this trailer is exciting in two ways: 1, it’s mobile so they can take it anywhere, and 2, if a specific recipe isn’t working, our programming makes it easy for them to switch it up and try new things.”

According to Wade Rummel, Technical Service Manager and Process Specialist at Lallemand, “This trailer helps us deliver new strains and fermentation products, and we can do it faster. Instead of freezing mash and sending it to a lab and having a month turnaround time, we can get real-life results right away.”

The Troubleshooting Experts

Every project hits a few snags, and the main difficulty with the trailer involved troublesome relays interacting with the automated valves. Randomly, certain valves would work for a few calls (opening and closing the valve), but then they would quit working until a new relay was inserted. After testing several points between the specific I/O point all the way back to the device itself, Interstates discovered the relays couldn’t handle the amount of current sent by the valves. “It took some intense troubleshooting to pinpoint the issue, but upgrading the relays solved the issue and made the process run smoothly again,” says Wunderink.

Smooth Roads Ahead

Lallemand was impressed with the clean look and build of the panel and appreciated the functionality of the HMI screen that can control equipment manually as well as run equipment based on predetermined conditions within a sequence of events. “There’s value in all the information they can collect from an equipment standpoint. Historical data can show them how the process ran, and the interface is easy to understand and use,” says Vortherms. Data collected by the system can show Lallemand and its clients important details about each batch – and all this can be done in any location for the first time.

Lallemand unveiled the innovative trailer at the 2021 Fuel Ethanol Workshop and Expo (FEW) in Des Moines in July. “The feedback at FEW was extremely positive – the ‘wow factor’ was really in play because it’s the first of its kind,” says Rummel. He adds, “People are excited and want to have the trailer at their site. They like that they can see the progression of the fermentation along the way.”