Ripe for Ethanol Innovations: Midlands Research Is Boosting Value of Corn Distillation Process
by Russell Hubbard (Omaha World-Herald) It starts out as freeze-dried fungus or bacteria from Denmark and ends up being one of the key ingredients in what some are calling Nebraska’s and Iowa’s shot at the big time when it comes to scientific innovation and economic development.
It is all about the production of enzymes at the Novozymes plant in Blair. The micro-organisms from Denmark wind up being mixed with water, oxygen and other additives in a broth to stimulate production of beneficial enzymes, or molecules that can accelerate biological processes.
In this case, that biological process is breaking down corn kernels into starch, then sugar, then ethanol, of which Nebraska is the second-largest U.S. producer, following Iowa. Enzymes from companies such as Novozymes — shipped to ethanol plants as a liquid in tanker trucks — allow ethanol producers to unlock more energy from each corn kernel, producing 5 percent more of the motor fuel while using 8 percent less energy.
Novozymes, publicly traded in Denmark, started full production in Blair in 2012 and now employs 114 people. The $200 million enzyme production center looks like a cross between a spotless candy kitchen and a brewery, but populated by white-coated professionals with doctorates in chemistry and biology.
Almost $1 billion worth of cellulosic plant investment is due to be coming to full production very soon in the Midwest:
» In Nevada, Iowa, DuPont is investing $200 million to make ethanol out of corn leaves and stalks. Capacity is pegged at 30 million gallons a year and operations are slated to begin late in the year.
» In Hugoton, Kansas, Spain-based Abengoa Bioenergy spent $500 million on a plant to make ethanol from corn leftovers, wheat straw, milo stubble and prairie grasses. Capacity is 25 million gallons a year, along with 21 megawatts of electricity.
» POET-DSM, a partnership between U.S. ethanol maker POET LLC and Dutch food and chemicals group DSM, has invested $250 million in a 25 million-gallon plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa. Corn cobs, leaves, husk and stalks are the ingredients.
“It is the most profitable time I can remember,” said Dan Wych, plant manager at Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy in Council Bluffs. “People are beginning to pay off debt and invest in even more advanced technologies.”
SIRE does most everything that can be done at an ethanol plant. It makes the motor fuel, sells the grain left over from the process as cattle feed and squeezes out corn oil from still more byproducts for use in biodiesel. It even sells its carbon dioxide byproduct to beverage makers.
Wych said a cut in the ethanol mandate by the EPA — whose latest rules on the topic are now eight months late — wouldn’t affect him much in the short term. He said gasoline producers need ethanol to boost the octane of their current most common formulation, which is 84 octane, to get it up to the 87 octane that used to be the default industry standard. READ MORE