Whether one believes corn-based ethanol is a viable long-term solution for the United States’ energy portfolio or not, the reality is that 280 plants across the country will continue to produce biofuels. And with the constant argument over the rise of cultivating farmland for fuel versus food, it is incumbent upon growers and biofuel producers to use this valuable crop as efficiently as possible.
Technology has a critical role as U.S. energy policy makers continue to place a huge emphasis on corn ethanol, especially in the Midwest. Part of the answer lies in enzymes. To that end, Novozymes, the Denmark-based company that is among the world’s largest producers of microorganisms, bio-pharmaceutical ingredients and industrial enzymes, recently launched new enzymes that boost ethanol and oil production from corn while saving biofuel plants energy and money.
During an interview with Adam Monroe, president of Novozymes North America, he explained how the company’s customers can potentially make more product from less feedstock. The results are more ethanol, more corn oil for consumer and industrial use, and more animal feed using the same amount of corn.
To understand how these enzymes work, imagine a cross section of a seed of corn (which resembles a tooth). The outer section, or endosperm, contains much of the starch that eventually becomes ethanol. Tucked within the endosperm is the kernel, which contains oil as well as starch. But while conventional processes were not effective in extracting starch out of the more concentrated kernel, Novozymes’ new industrial enzymes boost the rate of starch into sugar conversion. The company’s new Avantec and Spirizyme products transform roughly five percent more of the starch trapped in kernels into sugar than traditional processes. Another enzyme, Olexa, extracts up to 13 percent more oil out of the corn germ. Depending on the biofuel plant’s setup, each Novozyme customer uses a different cocktail of enzymes for its fuel production.
The results are higher yields from corn ethanol processing plants, and ethanol producers save money by reducing their energy consumption by up to eight percent. “In an industry that is being squeezed,” Monroe said, “these numbers are important.”
That five percent increase in yield may seem small, but for an industry dependent on commodities and vulnerable to sudden swings in prices, margins matter; the eventual payoff for large corn ethanol producers can be huge. The most productive ethanol plants in the United States can generate up to 100 million gallons of ethanol annually. Monroe insisted those largest plants could generate as much as another $5 million in revenues a year. “This is a significant advantage that allows (biofuel plants) to retain their workforce and increase profitability in a sector that is now just starting to recover,” said Monroe.
While recent droughts have had a detrimental impact on corn production across the U.S., the vagaries of supply and demand had created the most challenges to the corn industry until only recently. Ethanol today accounts for 10 percent of the gasoline-based transport consumption in the U.S.; resistance from energy companies and automakers has stalled further growth of ethanol as transportation fuel. Most gasoline blended with ethanol sold within the U.S. is a 10 percent ethanol blend, commonly known as E10. Flex-fuel vehicles with a tank for E85, an 85 percent ethanol-based fuel, have gained only slow acceptance within the U.S. and most of the 3,000 gasoline stations selling that high-ethanol blend are in the Midwest. The U.S. government is discussing plans allowing car engines to be tuned and certified for an E30 blend, which would give cars more horsepower and add to the overall driving experience. That plan at best is only in the long run, however, and meanwhile the corn ethanol industry faces additional challenges such as a general decline in gasoline consumption and greater interest in hybrid and plug-in cars.
Current economic uncertainties aside, overall trends indicate Americans will need to use more energy, whether to heat their homes and office buildings or to fuel their cars. Converting more land to corn production is not a viable option as the world’s population continues to grow and becomes more hungry. Could the future be cellulosic ethanol — fuel processed from low-starch, high-cellulose feedstock such as switchgrass, wood chips and agricultural waste (particularly all the stalks, husks and stover that remain after a corn harvest)? Monroe noted that Novozymes has the products necessary for such production, and the potential to extract even more biofuels is huge. “If we could convert only 16 percent of the crop waste out there,” he said, “we can make an additional 16 billion gallons of fuel in the U.S. annually — more than the fuel we currently get from ethanol — and that would be 10 to 12 percent of the nation’s fuel supply.” The debate rages on, but there is no doubt that firms such as Novozymes will continue to grow and play a role as the world struggles to diversify its energy supply.