Over the next few years, Syngenta's work on the corn-expressed amylase enzyme could dramatically boost the efficiency of the existing corn ethanol industry without requiring a drastic change in the way corn is produced and used, says David Witherspoon, head, Renewable Fuels, Syngenta. The corn-expressed amylase product has completed the FDA consultation process and is currently under USDA review for deregulation, he explains. The alpha-amylase enzyme is used to convert starch to fermentable sugars.

“By expressing a robust alpha-amylase enzyme directly in the endosperm of corn grain, we've pioneered a new approach to improving ethanol production in a way that can be integrated smoothly into the existing infrastructure,” Witherspoon says.

Syngenta recently completed a six-month, full-scale trial at a 50-million-gallon dry grind ethanol plant. The trial showed that the technology can have a large positive impact on ethanol production.

“With the corn-expressed amylase product, we've demonstrated the viability of this approach and we're investing in this platform to bring forth future innovations across a number of key crops,” Witherspoon says.

Energy crops present an “enormous” opportunity for U.S. agriculture, he says. However, they need to be developed in a sustainable, manageable way for growers. “Despite the huge potential of cellulosic ethanol and alternative feedstocks, the existing renewable fuels industry can't move away from starch-based ethanol in a significant way anytime soon,” Witherspoon says. “The challenge is to deliver more corn at competitive prices now and to make more efficient use of that corn and to use knowledge of key crops and plant science to ultimately make cellulosic ethanol economically competitive with petroleum.”