As corn-based ethanol facilities strive to drive down production costs, they are taking a closer look at feedstocks. Molecular geneticists and seed breeders have been responding, which may impact the types of corn produced in certain areas.

In fact, about 5,000 acres of Enogen corn have been under contract production in western Kansas this year. Syngenta bioengineered this corn (which the USDA deregulated this spring) to express the alpha amylase enzyme. Four western Corn Belt ethanol plants that have tested the corn have reported that it reduces slurry viscosity, which improves process performance and lowers energy and water consumption. These dry grind ethanol plants also save the cost of liquid alpha amylase, because they do not need to add it to the production.

Among the ethanol plants testing the Enogen corn is Western Plains Energy, Oakley, KS. Steve McNinch, the plant’s manager, says the corn has helped reduce production costs between $0.05 and $0.10/gal. of ethanol. Western Plains tested the corn over a three-year period. McNinch adds that the corn improved throughput by 10%. This can have a significant impact on a 50-million-gallons-per-year (mmgy) ethanol facility like Western Plains Energy.

From the test results at this and the other three plants, Syngenta projects that for a 100-mmgy ethanol plant, the use of this corn can result in an annual savings of 244 billion BTU of natural gas, 1.3 million kWh of electricity and 450,000 gal. of water.

Five Enogen hybrids

Syngenta has managed production of the corn this year using a contracted, closed system. Because the new trait offers savings to ethanol producers, growers will receive premiums of $0.30 to $0.40/bu.

There are currently five Enogen hybrids, which also have built-in insect- and herbicide-resistance traits. Their yields are similar to those of stacked-trait hybrids without the alpha amylase expression gene, says Jack Bernens, marketing and stakeholder manager, Enogen. These hybrids are adapted to the western Corn Belt.

More hybrids will undergo conversion to the output trait as the market expands. “We’ll launch Enogen in markets where we have ethanol plant contracts. We’re beginning in Kansas and Nebraska and will move north and east,” says Tim Tierney, Enogen marketing manager. “The new corn is a way to add value to ethanol and also keep revenues in local communities, especially for corn growers who own shares in ethanol companies.”

Growers who produce the corn under contract follow stewardship protocols for planting, growing, harvesting, storing and transporting the crop, but these protocols are synergistic with what is already being done on the farms, says David Witherspoon, head, Renewable Fuels, NAFTA, Syngenta. He adds that a 50-mmgy ethanol facility like Western Plains would need about 18 million bushels of corn a year, which would require 10,000 to 20,000 acres of production.  Just 10 to 20% of the total corn grind needs to be Enogen.

Several ethanol plants have expressed interest, and Syngenta expects to have more acres under contract production in 2012.

High total fermentable hybrids

Over the last few years, Pioneer, a DuPont business, has identified 250 of what it calls high total fermentable (HTF) corn hybrids for dry grind ethanol production. These hybrids, which range in maturity from 89 to 120 days, can deliver 4% more ethanol than conventional hybrids while maintaining a sound agronomic and yield package, says Steve Crowe, Pioneer’s North American biofuels business manager.

In addition, Pioneer has partnered with FOSS, a developer of near-infrared transmittance technology, to provide the QualiTrak system to ethanol production plants. The plants can use this technology in their receiving departments to rapidly grade grain for ethanol yield potential.

Pioneer has developed a calibration that is a partial least squares model for analysis of whole corn grain. This model reports ethanol yield potential in gallons of ethanol per bushel at 15% moisture, Pioneer reports. The model has been developed to run on the FOSS Infratec1241.

Pioneer also recently launched an electronic program for marketing grain for ethanol production, livestock feed or export. Pioneer representatives explained the Dynamic Pricing Platform (DPP) at the Fuel Ethanol Workshop in Indianapolis in June.

The program, developed by Farms Technology, enables growers to post asking prices for their corn electronically at any time of the day. It also allows buyers to post bids to growers in their local areas. When offers match these bids, the DPP allows transactions to be made automatically. Pioneer reports that buyers have their own branded sites that are powered by DPP. The program allows cash, hedge-to-arrive and basis contact offers. 

Processor Preferred hybrids

Over the last few years, Monsanto also has been screening hybrids for their ethanol yield potential and designating them Processor Preferred hybrids. “Corn quality is an important component of yield potential and we support ethanol plants with this same screening technology so that they have a good indication of the yield potential of the corn they are processing,” says Mimi Ricketts, communications director, Monsanto.

Processor Preferred hybrids are tested prior to commercialization for the amount of ethanol they produce on a per-bushel basis. Monsanto runs thousands of samples each year and continues to update the fermentable corn ratings, Ricketts says.

“The higher the corn yield per acre and the higher the ethanol yield per bushel, the lower the ethanol’s energy and environmental footprint,” Richetts says. “On average, a gallon of ethanol today uses 28% less thermal energy, 32% less electricity and 5% less corn than what it did in 2001.”

Molecular genetics and seed breeders continue to develop hybrids to make corn-based ethanol more efficient. At the same time, agronomists are studying how corn stover can be removed from fields for use in cellulosic ethanol production in a sustainable manner. This is becoming increasingly important as more ethanol producers are looking to a business model that integrates corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol plants. This business model, which helps spread out technology costs, coupled with the new fueled-up hybrids, will help the ethanol industry in its quest to drive down costs and continue to be a viable market for the corn grower.