It was first applied in medicine, then in agriculture. Now biotechnology is being used to improve manufacturing processes. This third wave of the science — referred to as industrial biotech — again involves some of the crops you plant and may affect what you grow in the future.

Some products from these processes have already made their way to market. For example, crop-based enzymes are being used to decrease the trans fat content in food, and corn-based polymers are the basis for biodegradable food packaging.

The new industrial biotech processes, using more renewable resources for ingredients, are generally cheaper and have less impact on the environment. Often they reduce the need for petroleum-based energy sources, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and even reducing water use.

Although the science of developing more renewable ingredient sources has been in the works for decades, the economics of using them have only begun to pencil out in the last few years.

Oil cost is catalyst

The high cost of oil has given bio-based research the boost it needed, says Paul Winters, spokesperson for Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), a major trade organization for the biotech industry. “Most manufacturers are looking for ways to replace petroleum products in their processing, as well as lower their energy requirements. And recent record-high oil costs are making these bio-based alternatives more economical,” he says.

The other driver of industrial biotechnology is growing concern for the environmental impacts of manufacturing. “In most cases, these bio-based enzymes and polymers, when used in the manufacturing process, lower the amount of greenhouse gases emitted, generate less heat and release fewer toxic chemicals into the air and water,” Winter says.

Often, industrial biotech uses the same tools as medical and agricultural biotech. “So much work in both medical and industrial biotech research deals with enzymes and other proteins, so there is often overlap,” he notes.

Such is the case with the process used to make new NovaLipid low-trans-fat oils, developed by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). By replacing chemicals with natural enzymes, the company's researchers found a new way to “interestify” soybean and other vegetable oils, which decreases the trans-fat content, without sacrificing the functional benefits of hydrogenated oils. This new process greatly reduces the amount of chemicals and water needed to produce zero- and low-trans-fat oils. So the end product is more appealing to consumers, and the processing is cheaper for ADM.

Corn offers versatility

Corn has become a major building block for many of these new industrial developments. “It's a natural place to start since it travels well, can be grown anywhere and its sugar content lends itself to lots of chemical processes,” says Richard Glass, vice president of research and business development for the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). “The key benefit to using corn for many of these processes is that, in many cases, it provides a one-for-one replacement for petrochemicals, and that makes the manufacturing process cheaper.”

An example is Cargill's NatureWorks PLA (polylacticide) process, which ferments corn sugars into lactic acid that is used to create the clear plastic PLA. The product is being molded into bottles, food containers and trays, films and other packaging materials that are biodegradable. A plant in Blair, NE, produces more than 3 million pounds of PLA a year, and the company claims it does so using 68% less fossil fuel than it takes to make traditional plastics.

Another new example is the Sorona polymer, also made by fermenting corn glucose. DuPont and renewable ingredient maker Tate and Lyle are using the resulting PDO (1,3 propanediol) polymer to spin fibers that can be made into fabrics for garments, carpeting and plastics.

“And that's just the beginning,” says Dawson Winch, global product manager for Sorona. “We're exploring a whole range of applications for this polymer, from personal products like shampoos and lotions, to industrial deicers.”

The two companies have formed a joint venture and built a plant in Louden, TN, which will begin in early 2007 to turn 6 million bushels of corn into 100,000 lbs. of what they call Bio-PDO, annually. “This new process will save 10 million gallons of gasoline per year at just this one plant,” Winch says. “Overall, it will require as much as 40% less energy to make than petroleum-based PDO.”

Along with energy savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the new polymer delivers some important end product improvements, Winch adds. “The fabric made with Bio-PDO takes dye more readily, can be blended with natural fibers like wool and cotton, is stretchier, and is more resistant to UV and chlorine damage,” she says.

“Anywhere we currently use nylon or polyester, we could consider using Bio-PDO instead, so the potential market for this type of product could be huge.”

Corn demand for such industrial uses is already on the rise. Three years ago, the amount of corn used for industrial purposes was only 4 to 5% of the total U.S. production, Glass notes. But this year that amount has grown to 17 to 18%.

He says that, from the 80 million acres of corn now grown in the United States, enough can be spared for industrial purposes. “We're not now, nor will we be in the future, limited by the number of corn acres,” he contends. “Biotech modifications can increase yields enough to help producers get more per acre. The yield increases over the last 20 years, alone, are evidence that we're consistently making major progress there.”

He sites NCGA figures showing average corn yield was 106 bu./acre in 1984, 138 bu./acre in 1994, and 160 bu./acre in 2004. Based on a 15-year trend line (between 1990 and 2004), NCGA projects average corn yields to hit 162 bu./acre by 2010 and 173 bu./acre by 2015. “We're confident U.S. farmers will be able to grow enough corn to meet the needs of these new industrial uses,” Glass says.

Other hot feedstocks

Industrial biotech is about more than just corn. Other feedstocks being used include wheat and barley straw, microbes, switchgrass and corn fiber, just for starters. Here's a quick rundown of how other renewable sources are being used:

  • Specializing in producing enzymes for cellulose ethanol production, Iogen Corporation hopes to build a plant in Idaho that will convert wheat and barley straw into fuel. The Canadian company claims that results from its Ottawa pilot plant show a larger plant using its process could produce ethanol for $1.35/gal.

  • Using microbes that make plastic inside bacterial cells, Metabolix hopes to commercially produce biopolymers that can be used to mold a variety of biodegradable plastic products. The Cambridge, MA, company also is pairing with ADM to build a plant in Clinton, IA, to produce PHA from cornstarch.

  • Using elite germplasm for switchgrass, molecular plant breeders at California-based Ceres Inc. worked with the Noble Foundation to develop varieties that yield 20 to 35% more ethanol than typical switchgrass does. The U.S. Department of Energy has identified this native prairie grass as a primary target for development as an ethanol feedstock.

  • Genetically engineered bacteria that eat hemicellulose in corn fiber could be a source for making the mint-flavored sweetener xylitol for use in chewing gum, toothpaste and mouthwash. Researchers at USDA's Agricultural Research Service have developed these bacteria, which could make xylitol much cheaper to produce than the current chemical process with birch wood fiber.

On the edge of industry

Blurring the lines between industrial and agricultural technology is a new company called Renessen LLC, a joint venture between Cargill and Monsanto. The company is gearing up to introduce a high-value corn and a high-value soybean, both for livestock feed, in 2007. It expects to have a high-lysine corn hybrid for 2008, says Doug Rushing, director of public and government affairs for Renessen.

“We're pairing the plant-breeding expertise of Monsanto with Cargill's capabilities in animal nutrition and grain handling to help growers produce and deliver a value-added crop that has benefit for livestock feeders,” he says.

Based on DeKalb and Asgrow plant genetics, the hybrids have been developed using biotech to have higher oil content, which makes the grain more valuable to livestock producers. “The first corn hybrid has twice the oil content of a typical corn variety — 6 to 8% compared to 3½%,” Rushing says. “We could have gotten even higher oil content, but then we started to sacrifice on yield, and we weren't willing to do that.”

He says the new high-oil hybrid — Asgrow RX832 — will have the YieldGard corn-borer trait and fits the 113- to 116-day maturity group. It will be grown on 20,000 acres in central Illinois and 10,000 acres in southern Iowa next season. Farmers will get a $0.25/bu. premium. “And we've already got the 2007 crop sold to poultry producers in Mexico and Latin America,” Rushing says.

The new soybean variety, which contains 5 percentage points more protein that average types, will be grown on 25,000 acres in Illinois this coming year. “Cargill has contracted with farmers fairly close to the river system, to simplify transportation,” Rushing explains. “That crop will be sold to pork producers in China. The economics are best now selling these value-added crops through export markets, due to the need for increased protein in their diets, but we will also be selling them domestically in the years to come.”

New pre-ethanol process cuts DDGS

A NEW low-cost process for separating more oil from corn kernels before they are fermented could improve the efficiency of ethanol production, as well as increase the value of the co-products. Developed by Renessen LLC, a joint venture between Cargill and Monsanto, this new process could be added on the front end of most existing dry-grind ethanol plants to make them more efficient.

Called the Renessen Corn Processing System, this new mechanical process captures a high percentage of the oil from the corn prior to fermentation, explains Doug Rushing, the company's director of public and government affairs. “This not only retrieves the oil but reduces the amount of nonfermentable material going into the ethanol plant, making it more efficient.”

The new process is expected to result in a reduction of one-third to one-half the normal amount of dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) produced at the back end of the ethanol process, he adds. “But the corn oil and nutrient-rich feed ingredient we extract initially adds more value to every bushel of corn going into a plant. Vegetable oil sells for $0.26 to $0.30/lb., versus just $0.02 to $0.03/lb. for DDGS.

“Also, we're reducing our natural gas costs because there is less DDGS to dry,” Rushing adds. “So, overall, we're not just adding more value to the corn, but also saving money in the ethanol production process. The other major benefit in this system is the production of a valuable, nutrient-rich feed that can be utilized by the local pork producers.”

Renessen is completing construction of a new pilot plant near Eddyville, IA, and expects to begin processing corn there in early 2007. The company contracted just more than 7,000 acres of high-oil corn for sale to the plant this past season, and Rushing says the plant will contract for at least 10,000 acres of Mavera high-value corn in 2007.

“We will also be working with researchers at several universities to conduct feeding trials,” he adds. “If everything works as well as we expect it will at the pilot plant, we will be able to license this technology to future and existing dry-mill ethanol plants as a bolt-on system. Right now, about 70% of the existing ethanol plants use the dry-mill process.”

For more information, contact Renessen LLC, Dept. FIN, 520 Lake Cook Rd., Suite 220, Deerfield, IL 60015, 847/236-5101, www.renessen.com.