Change Defines Ethanol’s Coproducts

The July issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine has a coproducts theme and contains stories about coproduct quality, new coproducts and the customer-driven interest in antibiotic-free distillers grains, writes Tom Bryan.
By Tom Bryan | June 18, 2015

The spec for fuel ethanol doesn’t change—the ASTM standard is the same all the time, no matter what—but its coproducts are modified, tweaked and reinvented with striking regularity. The stern requirements of distillers grains customers has driven many coproduct decisions over the years. The allure of underserved markets has driven others. Now, two other factors are in play: regulation of food and consumer attitudes about food. This month’s issue touches on each of these pillars of coproduct change, starting with alterations born from customer care.  

The stability of the ethanol’s two principal coproducts, distillers grains and distillers corn oil, is the subject of this month’s cover story. By stability, the experts mean the degree to which the products are susceptible to fouling during transport and storage. In “Creating a Quality Image,” EPM Managing Editor Holly Jessen reports that the shelf life of distillers grains and DCO is especially important anywhere the coproducts are stored in hot or humid conditions. There has been little research done on coproduct stability, but a new study indicates that distillers grains and DCO, like other unsaturated oils, are prone to lipid degradation over time under steamy conditions. The good news, however, is that there are effective antioxidant additives on the market.  

We turn from coproduct quality to coproduct invention, as EPM Senior Editor Susanne Retka Schill reports on a University of Minnesota research team’s effort to make phytate the industry’s next big coproduct. Bringing a new product to market is never easy, but this potential new coproduct has several appealing uses, and removing it from the production stream could enhance distillers grains. Low-phytate distillers grains equals low-phosphorous distillers grains, and that’s appealing to hog and poultry producers who must prevent phosphorous leaching on their properties. Moreover, lower phytate makes other nutrients in distillers grains more available and useful to animals. On a parallel front, Retka Schill also gives us an update on efforts to commercialize the production of zein, another novel but promising coproduct.

Finally, we wade into the complex subject of antibiotics in this issue. In “Wanted: Antibiotic Free Chicken,” Retka Schill reports on how consumer-driven changes in the food and restaurant industries are inevitably affecting distillers grains producers. Several big food companies and restaurant chains including McDonalds, Chipoltle Mexican Grill, Perdue Farms and Tyson Inc. have recently declared their intentions to go antibiotic free. We report that an estimated 70 percent of U.S. ethanol plants still rely on antibiotics to ward off yield-robbing bacteria in the production process. Today’s producers are using antibiotics discerningly, and studies have shown that traces of antibiotics that sporadically show up in distillers grains are “magnitudes lower” than FDA limits. Despite the fact that antibiotics are effective and safe, however, some ethanol producers are committing to alternative antimicrobials to win over—or keep—their big customers. Oh, and those antibiotic-free DDGS premiums are reportedly starting to come. Time will tell if this is a niche opportunity or an unstoppable trend.

Author: Tom Bryan
President & Editor in Chief