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Cracking Kernels of Profit

Golden Valley, Minn. – A Minnesota company has come up with a new corn milling process that could turn ethanol plants into nature’s “chop shops.”

Biorefining Inc.’s patent-pending corn fractionation technology separates the corn kernel into its component parts – hull, germ and starch – before ethanol manufacturing begins. The process aims to make ethanol plants more profitable by boosting ethanol yields, cutting manufacturing costs, and creating additional coproducts.

This summer, AURI will help Biorefining demonstrate its new Biomilling ProcessTM on a commercial scale. If the results confirm previous smaller trials, the company hopes to begin licensing the technology to ethanol plants this fall.

Cracking the corn kernel

Currently, most ethanol plants grind up the entire corn kernel, sending the non-fermentable corn oil, protein and fiber to the distillery along with the starch. These components, which make up a third of the kernel, remain after the starch is converted to alcohol. Usually, they are dried and sold as distiller’s grains for animal feed.

By contrast, the Biomilling Process sends only the starch to the fermentor. The hull and germ are then available to be processed into crude corn oil and corn-gluten meal and feed.

Biorefining has applied for four patents on the milling process, which uses little heat and no chemicals. Because the process allows each part of the corn kernel to be separated from the whole and refined separately, Doug Van Thorre, Biorefining’s president and co-founder, likes to call it “nature’s chop shop.”

More profitable ethanol plants

The Biomilling Process offers ethanol producers several advantages over conventional dry milling, says Thom Menie, vice president of sales and marketing. Using a “virtually pure-starch feedstock” makes fermentation more efficient, he says, and produces another coproduct: brewer’s yeast. “We estimate a 17 percent gain per batch in conversion of starch to ethanol.”

More efficient fermentation also reduces energy expense, Menie says. Biomilling saves on the cost of drying leftover distiller’s grains and cuts offensive drying odors. The company estimates the process could lower an ethanol plant’s total energy use by 5 to 10 percent.

On the revenue side, Biomilling coproducts are more valuable than distiller’s dry grains, Menie says. Corn oil, dried brewer’s yeast, and corn-gluten meal and feed sell for up to 10 times the price of distiller’s grains, bringing as much 41 cents a pound, compared to about 4 cents a pound for distiller’s dry grains, Menie estimates.

Further, Biorefining will guarantee ethanol producers a market for coproducts generated from Biomilling, Menie says. In January, the company signed a preliminary sales agreement with Scoular Co., a $2.3 billion feed and food distribution company based in Omaha, to buy and resell the commodities.

“We’ll bring ethanol producers not only the process and the technology, but the market for the coproducts, as well,” says Menie, 53, a former marketing executive for Johnson & Johnson and Pillsbury who also managed more than 40 marketing campaigns for small companies.

All of this adds up to improved profitability for ethanol plants, Menie says. The company claims that using the Biomilling Process could boost a dry mill’s bottom line two to five times. A 40-million-gallon ethanol plant could be retrofitted with a Biomilling facility for about $10 million – one-tenth the cost of current corn wet-mill technology, Menie says. Based on increased manufacturing efficiency, reduced energy consumption, and added revenue from Biomilling coproducts, “we estimate a one-year payback on the capital investment,” he says.

Prove it!

Biorefining’s new technology is attracting a lot of attention, says Max Norris, an AURI scientist who has worked with the intellectual property company since its inception in 2000. But so far, he observes, ethanol producers are taking a show-me attitude: “There’s interest, certainly, but the ethanol plants are saying, ‘Prove it!'”

That’s where AURI is playing a role. This month, with AURI’s technical help, Biorefining will begin running the process at commercial volumes in a leased manufacturing plant in Minnesota. “This will be a real-life prove-up of the technology,” Menie says. The eight to 10-week demonstration will provide detailed data about the manufacturing process, coproduct characteristics and economic feasibility. With that information in hand, “we hope to have a licensing deal on the table this year,” Menie says.

Part of biorefining trend Besides its front-end milling process for ethanol plants, Biorefining is moving forward with two other corn-refining technologies. The company’s patented Bio-Extraction Process produces specialty sugars from corn fiber for nutraceutical products; its Bio-Conversion Process makes rare sugars used in drugs. (For more on this technology, see Ag Innovation News, Jan. 2003)

The company, which has raised $2.4 million in private capital since 2000, broke ground last fall on a joint venture with Ace Technologies called Ace-Biorefining, LLC. Early next year, the $22-million Wisconsin facility will begin extracting L-arabinose and other sugars from corn distiller’s grains. In 2006, Biorefining hopes to build a $6-million Minnesota facility to produce rare sugars from corn fiber.

Biorefining’s efforts reflect the advances now being made in converting renewable plants into energy and industrial products, Norris says. Menie agrees, echoing the view of many in agriculture today: “We’re going to be a bio-based society some day, instead of a petroleum-based society.”

Already, the renewable ethanol industry is growing rapidly, spurred by federal and state environmental mandates. The country’s 75 ethanol plants are expected to produce 3.3 billion gallons of fuel this year, up from 2.8 billion gallons last year, and the industry will add 550 million gallons of production capacity. Still, ethanol is not price competitive with gasoline, Menie says, and the industry continues to rely on government supports to stay afloat.

Biorefining wants to help change that by making ethanol plants more profitable, Menie says. “A biorefinery wrapped around an ethanol plant – now you have something that can compete with petroleum.”