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Monday, November 1, 2021

Innovators Pitch Ideas for Handling Kentucky Bourbon Industry’s Surplus Stillage


A selection from Second Sight Spirits distillery in Ludlow. The Kentucky bourbon distilling industry is a driving economic force in the commonwealth. (photo: Phil Armstrong, Fort Thomas Matters)

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Innovators from across the United States came together last week during the Distillers Grains Reverse Pitch Competition to propose ways to use stillage produced by Kentucky’s signature bourbon industry.

BioProducts of Louisville was selected by the judges as the first-prize winner. SoMax Circular Solutions of Philadelphia was chosen as runner-up and voted crowd favorite. BioProducts’ concept includes a process that yields xylose, a low-calorie sweetener, and activated carbon, which has applications for battery cells. The first-prize winner received a spot to present at the James B. Beam Institute of Kentucky’s conference and a collection of bourbon donated by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.

"I want to congratulate all those who answered the call to address an issue facing one of our state’s signature and already soaring industries," said Gov. Andy Beshear. "It is inspiring to see so many innovators approach this challenge as an opportunity to ensure the bourbon boom continues well into the future. Whether it’s our native beverage or automotive manufacturing, Kentuckians are and will continue to create sustainable technologies that support our industries and create good-paying jobs.”

With the number of Kentucky distillers increasing 250 percent over the past decade, the need to address the industry’s spent-grain byproduct has grown. For every gallon of bourbon produced, approximately 10 gallons of stillage remains. Currently, the demand for stillage – including traditional low-tech uses – is declining as the supply of stillage increases. The call went out to innovators over the summer to submit ideas for stillages solutions that prioritized sustainability and environmental impact; demonstrated an economic value to the distillery and the end-user of the stillage; and highlighted the scalability of the solution among others. 

First of its kind competition

The pitch competition, the first of its kind related to addressing the stillage issue, was held at the 25th Distillers Grains Symposium at the Downtown Louisville Marriott for an audience of distillers and industry stakeholders. The event was hosted through a partnership between the Distillers Grains Technology Council, the James B. Beam Institute for Kentucky Spirits, Innovation Incubated, the Energy and Environment Cabinet, and KY Innovation, the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, with support and guidance from the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.

"It was inspiring to see such creative ideas to allow one of Kentucky’s signature industries to grow while protecting our natural resources," Energy and Environment Secretary Rebecca Goodman said. "We believe that energy, environment and economic development must go hand in hand, and environmentally conscious solutions like these make economic growth all the more sustainable."

Kentucky Distillers’ Association President Eric Gregory said the reverse pitch competition spreads the industry’s momentum in a new direction.

"The dramatically increasing global demand for Kentucky bourbon fuels the commonwealth’s economy through our state’s farming, distilling, retail and tourism industries. Now we can see opportunities for new business models taking shape in other industries that could benefit Kentucky," Gregory said. "We at KDA are proud to support this kind of innovative thinking that increases the sustainability and long-term growth of Kentucky bourbon."

BioProducts’ presentation was delivered by company founder and CEO Dr. Jagannadh Satyavolu and Cliff Speedy of C&I Engineering, which is a partner on the project. The company has plans to build units capable of handling 75,000 gallons of stillage a day and converting it into the diabetic-friendly sugar substitute, activated carbon and biocoal, and a protein that can be used in animal feed.

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The other presenters

Dan Spracklin with SoMax Circular Solutions: Pennsylvania based SoMax Circular Solutions uses hydrothermal carbonization (HTC) to recover valuable byproducts from spent grains. The process converts the stillage into solid carbon-neutral biofuels, clean water and nutrients. Thermal energy and clean water can be used by the distillery, reducing expenses and carbon footprint.

Eric Jens and Steve Wesley with Local Sols: Chicago-based Local Sols upcycles spent grains into branded premium pet and plant foods using a combination of black soldier fly larvae and red wigglers to rapidly transform spent grains into raw protein. This model is scalable and not only allows the distillers to brand a sustainable bottle, but also provides pet food branding sourced with sustainable protein, reducing the amount of land, water and greenhouse gases produced by traditional pet food manufacturing.

Brandon Corace and Don Corace with Meridian Biotech: Texas-based Meridian Biotech is an industrial biotech company with experience in the ethanol/alcohol industry. Meridian Biotech pitched a plan to process excess stillage into alternative by-products used in aquaculture fishmeal and pet food industries.

George Bower with Biogas Technology Group: Lexington-based Biogas Technology Group proposed the development of a 500,000 ton/year centralized facility in Marion County to process and convert raw stillage into recoverable products. The facility operates patented technology with zero process emissions and converts the stillage to renewable natural gas, CO2 and other commercial products. The system is a low energy input alternative to traditional dry-houses.

John Wright with Continental Refining Co.: Somerset-based Continental Refining Co. LLC pitched a method of processing distillers’ grains to extract vegetable oil and animal feed byproducts. Their model included an off-site location for distillers to deliver their wet stillage, thus creating no additional investment for the distillery. 

Job creation and investment by Kentucky spirits industry

Kentucky’s spirits industry includes approximately 70 facilities that employ more than 5,100 people. Since the start of 2020, the commonwealth’s spirits industry saw more than 30 new-location or expansion announcements with over $550 million in planned investments and approximately 500 new full-time jobs announced.

Job creation and investments by Kentucky’s spirits industry continues to drive recent economic momentum in the commonwealth, as the state builds back stronger following the effects of the pandemic.

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