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Technology improvements promise bright ethanol future


Two announcements made earlier this month by companies with strong ties to Iowa’s ethanol producers are expected to have long-term benefits for the entire industry.

On Nov. 4, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. announced it had entered into an agreement with the National Corn Growers Association to allow NCGA to use Pioneer technology to develop an industrywide standard for measuring the fermentation potential of corn for ethanol production. Using the technology, ethanol producers could source grain with higher potential ethanol yield to improve their efficiency and profitability.

“This industry’s development holds great benefits for U.S. corn growers by expanding the marketplace for their products,” said Pat Hilliard, Pioneer’s account manager for ethanol.

Also on Nov. 4, The Broin Cos., a Sioux Falls, S.D.-based ethanol development, production and marketing company, announced a breakthrough in production technology it says will eliminate a costly step in the process of making ethanol while increasing the quality of byproducts and reducing plant emissions. The company said it intends to license the patent-pending technology to ethanol producers worldwide.

“The industry has been really doing a lot of research over the last eight years to increase plant efficiencies,” said Tom Slunecka, vice president of marketing for the National Corn Growers Association. In addition to a number of small breakthroughs in ethanol production, the corn industry has been working toward the “silver bullet” of developing corn with more fermentable starch for making ethanol, as well as doing research into more value-added chemicals that can be re-refined from ethanol, he said.

“When you put it all together, I think the (Broin) announcement is one of the foremost that we’ve heard about,” Slunecka said. “The NCGA is excited to hear about the research. Anything that can streamline the process and make us even more viable is valuable.”

For every BTU of energy used to make ethanol, approximately 1.67 BTUs are produced, an increase from a ratio of 1.33 BTUs produced for each BTU expended three years ago, according to the NCGA.

“So we are currently at an efficient rate, but at any point if you can lower that energy cost, it makes you more profitable as other factors change,” Slunecka said.

Broin’s new ethanol conversion system “will change ethanol production as we know it today,” said the company’s chief executive officer, Jeff Broin. The process, which uses an enzyme technology to replace the “cooking” step in production, has already been successfully implemented in three of its U.S. plants, he said.

In addition to reducing production costs, the process also releases additional starch content for conversion to ethanol, increases the quality of the distillers dried grain byproduct used for animal feed, and significantly decreases plant emissions, he said.

Larry Johnson, a crop scientist with the Center for Crop Utilization at Iowa State University, said the company hasn’t provided any information that would enable him to evaluate the significance of the new technology. “I would suspect they’re withholding the details in the event that the patent doesn’t go through, so that they have the option of keeping it a trade secret,” he said.

Broin, which took three years to develop the process, partnered with Novozymes, a Denmark-based developer and marketer of starch conversion enzymes to the industry.

Meanwhile, Pioneer has agreed to provide the NCGA with a royalty-free license for North America to the company’s measurement technology, which will allow the ethanol yield potential of corn to be quickly determined. NCGA will coordinate all activities related to establishing a single measurement standard, which it would license to ethanol plants.

“We believe that it will ultimately be very important for grain elevators, corn producers and ethanol plants so they know that they are on the same standard,” Slunecka said. “By having a transparent standard, farmers will soon be able to make a cropping decision that will give them a larger value based on those measurements.”

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