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S.E. Colorado Plant Adds Refining Phase

Friday, January 1, 2010
filed under: Utilization/Trade

Smartly tucked away in southeastern Colorado is a small sunflower crushing plant that has now added refining capability. Colorado Mills of Lamar has been operating its approximately 60-ton-a-day crush plant since 1999. The company, which is locally owned, has developed a close working relationship with its grower base. Adding refining capacity opens new market avenues for this company.

The decision to build an oil refinery was under consideration for some time, according to plant manager Rick Robbins. “After the industry changes to NuSun® and high-oleic sunflower, we knew we had to refine our oil at the plant to compete in the domestic market,” Robbins says. “The domestic market needs a fully refined oil. It doesn’t buy crude like the export market does.”

Colorado Mills built the refinery in a 50:50 joint ownership with SunOpta, a Canadian based food company with facilities throughout North America. The joint venture is called Colorado Sun. SunOpta markets an assortment of vegetable oils that are organic or natural. They emphasize that their oils are not processed with any chemicals, either in the extraction or refining stage. This is a good fit with Colorado Mills since their extraction is considered “expeller pressed,” meaning the seeds and oil do not go through a solvent extraction phase to remove the final portion of the oil. Two presses are used at the plant.

Not all of the oil is removed in this process, and Colorado Mills has developed a livestock feed business that promotes the higher-fat-content sunflower meal. It has been an important component in making this process economical.

The refinery was equipped to maintain the “natural” or “organic” designation throughout to the final product. Most vegetable oil refineries use a number of chemicals to purify the oil. The plan is for the Colorado refinery to be able to use physical refining, which uses mainly water in the degumming stage instead of harsh acids.

The refining equipment is produced in Europe and specially designed for that purpose. The refining phase includes filtering and removing the gums. In this case, most of that is done in the crush plant, according to Robbins. The refinery then deodorizes and bleaches the oil into what is called refined/bleached/deodorized (RDB) oil. This is the process that takes the oil to the finished state and ready for human consumption.

There has been a growing interest in this natural process within the food industry. The organic and natural food industry has been growing rapidly, as evidenced by most supermarkets now having an “organic/natural” section. To be called “natural” a vegetable oil has to come from seeds that are “cold pressed,” i.e., processed without a solvent phase.

The refining process is much the same. Heat is used in the deodorization stage, and caustic soda is used only when oils have high phosphatides or impurities that are difficult to remove with only water. Both the crushing and refining using this natural system are not as efficient in time and volume, so the natural oils are more expensive and require a higher price in the market place.

Refining oil is a very technical process and the end product must meet very tight specifications. If certain types of particulate matter are not totally removed, the oil can degrade in storage. The metals used in the piping must meet exact standards to avoid possible quality issues later on. The equipment to degum, deodorize and bleach is produced in Germany by OHMI Corporation, arriving in Lamar already assembled on container-sized skids. The Colorado facility is the first fully integrated plant that OHMI has supplied.

Robbins says the plant will primarily be producing natural NuSun and high-oleic sunflower oil. “We will be doing some organic production on a contract basis and likely a few other oilseeds; but our primary focus is sunflower oil,” he observes. “We are in a niche market that doesn’t have big suppliers. But the market for the end use is also smaller.”

Then there is the issue of breaking into a new market as a supplier. Colorado Mills previously was selling its crude sunflower oil to other small refineries — mostly on the West Coast. Now, with the refinery joint venture with SunOpta, they are selling the end product to a whole new set of buyers. Robbins says they will be looking at food processors in the neighborhood as potential customers. The Front Range of Colorado has a sizeable food processing industry, and restaurant use is a possibility as well. “We will be able to fill rail tanker cars, tanker trucks, totes and 55-gallon drums, which gives us a good deal of market flexibility,” Robbins reports. “We will have a few bugs to work out as we get started, but we are excited about this new venture.”

For the community of Lamar, population 8,000, this is all good news. The crush plant employs 18, and an additional 12 are being added to the refinery staff. — Larry Kleingartner

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