Disruptive technology enters the grain drying market
by Vaughn Entwistle, Managing Editor, Milling and Grain
Disruptive technology is an innovation that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. But the market being what it is, not all disruptive technology is successful. Sometimes this is because existing producers are well-established and familiar to risk-averse customers. Sometimes the technology looks impressive, but still fails to catch on. And sometimes the innovators are a little too far ahead of their time.
Traditional gas grain dryers
Most grain dryers currently on the market use gas (typically NG or often bottled LPG gas). Manufacturers of gas driers compete with one another by offering grain dryers that are energy efficient, have a high throughput and do not burn or damage the grain. But now there is a new technology available that just might be a game-changer.
Introducing 'radio frequency drying'
DRYMAX is a US company based in Minnesota. What sets it apart from other drier companies is its innovative new technology for drying grains. DRYMAX describes its unique 'forcefield' technology as radio frequency' drying. At first that may sound like a giant microwave oven—the same technology used to pop popcorn, but it's not. I interviewed company founder Kevin Eichhorn to find out more about 'forcefield' technology, how it works, and what are its potential advantages.
- MAG: How is your technology different from a giant microwave oven?
Eichhorn: Although we use radio wave energy it's not microwaves. It is a different part of the radio spectrum. We use long-wave radio waves, which are very gentle and do not heat up the grain like microwaves do.
- MAG: Grain quality is significantly affected by the drying process and type of gas dryer. Two of the most significant variables that have a deleterious effect on grain quality are maximum kernel temperature and drying rate. For example, the head yield from rough rice is significantly affected by the drying rate and kernel temperature. However, corn and wheat are less sensitive to high kernel temperatures and the maximum allowable kernel temperature is a function of product end-use. How do radio waves affect the grain while drying?
Eichhorn: In comparison with gas driers, the gentler radio waves dry from the inside out and barely raise the temperature of the crop. Instead it works by breaking down H2O as water vapour from inside the kernel into the air where it is carried away by a system of fans.
- MAG: Food safety is always a major concern. Gas grain driers require the use of food-safe gas. Does the DRYMAX meet food safety requirements?
Eichhorn: Yes. That is the reason that we look forward to discussing the benefits of our radio wave dryers over propane/gas. No matter how 'safe' the gas, it still enters our food chain and no gas emissions are safe. It is the fact that there have never been any alternatives that make them talk about 'safe' gas. It is a fallacy and has been causing cancer and other ailments for too many years. DRYMAX changes all that.'
- MAG: Can the DRYMAX system handle batches and/or continuous flow?
Eichhorn: Right now it is better to run continuous flow, because we can make those systems modular and expandable, rather than trying to make a system to fit hundreds of different bin sizes.
- MAG: An obvious question is how does the DRYMAX solution compare in terms of energy consumption to the equivalent capacity gas grain dryer?
Eichhorn: It is hard to compare energy sources and costs, but if you understand that we are only electrical, the long-term savings happen because of ubiquitous installation, negotiated rates, rebates for Ag and electrification efforts, no seasonal shortages or cost jacks that happen seasonally for propane.
- MAG: What kinds of crops can be dried using 'forcefield' technology?
Eichhorn: The DRYMAX system is flexible. In 2018, the company improved drying techniques for most common grains including rice, barley, soybean, wheat, and other seeds. In 2019, the technology was successfully used with alfalfa, manure, hemp, begasse, wood pulp and other biomass, food processing, and municipal drying—sludge.
Our dryers look different for each type of material; however, the patented tech is similar where a wet product enters and takes time to pass through the 'cage'. We call our dryer process a 'cage' because it is just metal and relates to the Faraday Cage principal. In future developments, all dryers will be fully automated with AI + machine learning to make the process better over time.
- MAG: An obvious question is which can dry a ton of wheat faster, the DRYMAX solution or a conventional gas drier? (Presuming we dry the same batch of wheat with equivalent moisture content).
Eichhorn: We can dry not only faster, (although if you want burnt or toasted wheat, I'm sure high heat can win), but also the long-wave radio waves only target H2O, so they leave the protein, valuables (taste and smell), and vitamins intact - which is worth far more to humans than what is possible currently. We dry from the inside-out so quality is maintained.
- MAG: Does DRYMAX operation require any special training?
Eichhorn: Yes, it is different and will require training classes to become certified.
- MAG: Does DRYMAX come in a range of different sizes like gas dryers?
Eichhorn: We envision that these will be modular, able to be added together to create the bushel/hour desired.
- MAG: What are the energy costs per tonne versus a gas dryer?
Eichhorn: I cannot say exactly because each region has its own electricity prices/rebates, but we are significantly less expensive than propane (1/10th) and no 6-week cooling fan/electricity costs.
- MAG: What are the electrical power requirements to power a typical DRYMAX system?
Eichhorn: We are still testing the efficiencies, but it is not that much. No farmer adds in his electrical costs for cooling fans into the mix, so if we just look at the power necessary for drying, it is roughly 48kW/500bph at ten points water removal for corn. Wheat and other grains that require two-to-five percent moisture loss would be much less.
- MAG: What is the ROI in terms of tonnes of grain? How long does it take to pay off the initial investment?
Eichhorn: I cannot say what the final market price will be for each type of grain dryer, except that it will be initially be higher than high heat gas dryers. The upside is that it pays for itself very quickly in many ways; 1) lower energy costs 2) higher yield 3) better quality grains 4) lower operational costs 5) giving farmers control (cannot place a value on that one!) 6) better marketable products. If a producer can harvest at peak, even when greener, they will keep all their yield instead of field loss for leaving it to dry in the field.
- MAG: What is the typical cost per tonne of wheat for gas drier versus your drier?
Eichhorn: we do not have those exact figures yet. We are running full tests of wheat this harvest season and will have that on our website before 2021.Though every material/grain dries differently, and the complexities of the tech and cell structure of the material make it so that we have massive calculations to R&D, we have been successful with all the grains we have tried.
My highest excitement is for rice, which has to be dried three times over many weeks traditionally and, thus, loses almost all its nutritional value. We can keep all that initial value and dry within minutes. Our work on wild rice in Minnesota have shown dramatic results.
- MAG: Does DRYMAX remove surface contaminants?
Eichhorn: We have shown many advantages and yes, we do kill moulds, bugs and pests.
- MAG: What moisture levels can DRYMAX achieve and can that be adjusted? Can you dial in the desired moisture?
Eichhorn: We are drying alfalfa/hemp from 80+ percent down to 10 percent so we do not see any limitations on agricultural drying prospects. Yes, we can dial in the moisture percentage using our patented tech to sense levels and adjust to crops moving through the system. Where traditional dryers leave grains wet inside (can still rot) or percentage variances are expected, DRYMAX will be able to produce even and inner dried grains with uniformity.
- MAG: What volume of throughput is achievable and how does that compare to a gas drier for a similar investment?
Eichhorn: We can achieve the volume customer needs by our modular approach. Next year we will target very large systems. This year we want to perfect our farm-size dryers. The test size in the photos is supposed to run 150 bushel/hour corn at 10 points. For this September, we are building units that run 500 bph. The initial cost for a dryer will be almost double a current gas drier, until we have economies of scale to lower the cost of electronics.