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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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New Enzyme Technology Allows more Ethanol to be Produced from Less Corn

A new enzyme technology allowing the corn ethanol biofuels industry to produce more ethanol with less corn while saving energy and improving profits was announced yesterday.  The technology is a new pair of enzymes combined with a third one that Novozymes shows saves up to 5% of the corn used in U.S. ethanol production.  Even more useful in the food vs. fuel debate is the technology also increases corn oil extraction by 13%.  As a practical matter the technology also saves 8% of the energy needed during production.

The efficiency improvements can be achieved when two new enzymes, Spirizyme® Achieve and Olexa®, are used together with another Novozymes enzyme, Avantec®.

Andrew Fordyce, Executive Vice President for Business Operations at Novozymes explains the effect with, “These new enzyme innovations offer strong benefits to ethanol producers. It allows our customers to make more from less and substantially improve their profit margins”.

For example take a typical U.S. ethanol plant.  These use around 36 million bushels (900,000 tons) of feed-grade corn per year to produce 100 million gallons of fuel ethanol, 300,000 tons of animal feed called Dried Distillers Grain with the Solubles (DDGS) [the Wikipedia link while informative is quite out of date.] and 8,500 tons of corn oil. By using Avantec, Olexa and Spirizyme Achieve, such a plant can save up to 1.8 million bushels (45,000 tons) of corn while maintaining the same ethanol output, increasing the corn oil extraction, and generating up to $5 million in additional profit.

The Avantec product was introduced in October 2012 and Novozymes says it has been well received in the U.S. ethanol industry.  “Our customers demand risk-free options that do not require major investments. That is exactly what our enzymes offer. We are the first to market this full package and are looking forward to implementing it together with our customers, trialing the technology at their plants, and getting the solutions out there. It’s a competitive industry and only via innovation like this can Novozymes continue to be the leading supplier of enzymes to the ethanol industry.” Fordyce added.

Related article: Exxon’s $100m Algae Investment Falls Flat

Starch Degrading Enzyme Action Effects
Starch Degrading Enzyme Action Effects. Image Credit: Novozymes.

In the U.S. corn is the key raw material in biofuel production and by far the biggest cost component for an ethanol plant.  After the corn is harvested, the kernels are ground into corn meal and water is added to make a mash. The enzymes convert the starch in the mash to sugar, which can then be fermented with brewers yeast to make ethanol. Avantec and Spirizyme Achieve convert starch to sugar more efficiently than any other enzyme product on the market, while Olexa works by freeing up oil bound in the corn germ.

Corn oil is used in a huge array of products.  It’s used in food preparation, the production of animal feed, biodiesel and soaps and other products.  Corn oil has become an increasingly important revenue stream for ethanol producers. Extensive implementation of extraction technology from 2008 to 2012 has seen the industry record a nearly five-fold increase in corn oil production, according to a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Novozymes estimates that approximately 80% of the operating ethanol capacity in the U.S. will have incorporated oil extraction into their plants by end 2013.  There is too much opportunity for products and revenue streams to be ignored.

A bit of background about corn.  There are four primary corn crops.  The most familiar is “Sweet Corn” that is what people eat.  This corn variety doesn’t make starch – it makes sugar at least until it over matures or sits too long after harvest when the sugar will degrade to starch.  The second is “Waxy Corn” that is used to make the corn oil found on the grocers’ shelves in the cooking and baking section and myriad other uses.  Both of these crops are small markets and require a great deal more hands on attention.  They are strong attractants for vermin, wild animals and insects.  The third is popcorn we are all familiar with.

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The fourth and huge market is field or flint corn.  Field corn is starch rich and thus isn’t such a strong attractant for pests and can be grown in huge amounts all around the world without such intense labor inputs and property capital invested to keep the crop up to food quality.  The future will see corn grown for primary proteins and pharmaceutical production.

Meanwhile, the field corn used for ethanol is only stripped of its carbohydrate or starch leaving a very desirable set of components, the protein, fiber and oil.  The DDGS noted above, dried and with most of the oil removed is still a third of the mass of the original corn feedstock.  Taking out the oil offers savings as the oil out makes drying easier and more efficient.

Novozymes’ technology is not just welcome for lower cost ethanol or less pressure on corn prices, its welcome as the DDGS is a necessary animal feed product and offers researchers a great potential for protein products.

Those making the food vs. fuel argument rely on the ignorance of the audience.  The ethanol industry is continually making improvements and seeking higher value from the process.  It’s only a matter of time before the corn that hasn’t ever been directly used as human food will indirectly become a protein based human food product.  As the world’s population increases there will be a great incentive to use that huge reservoir of protein directly to feed people instead of feeding it to animals and then eating them.  The future, and its coming fast, won’t be food vs. fuel it will be fuel and food.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Source: Good News for Corn Ethanol and Feeding the World

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