Amazing Zein

Illinois River Energy plans to extract zein protein from corn
By Kris Bevill | April 15, 2011

Plans are under way to construct a commercial-scale zein protein production facility next to the 110 MMgy Illinois River Energy plant located near Rochelle, Ill. Prairie Gold Inc., a Bloomington, Ill.,-based technology developer, and Itasca, Ill.,-based GTL Resources USA Inc., the owner/operator of Illinois River Energy, are collaborating to develop Prairie Gold’s proprietary zein extraction process and to produce high purity zein samples for potential end-use customers at their pilot-scale zein plant in Rochelle. A detailed engineering study is currently being conducted to determine equipment sizing and other cost requirements necessary to scale the pilot plant to a commercial-scale facility capable of producing several million pounds of zein annually. The permitting planning process has also commenced, according to GTL CEO Richard Ruebe. Prairie Gold President Philip Shane says a groundbreaking for the planned facility could be held toward the end of this year.

Zein is a natural, corn-based polymer with a wide variety of applications in multiple industries. Because of its wide range of uses, the product commands a high market price of about $18 per pound, according to Shane. But despite the potential for a solid revenue stream there are currently few producers exploring zein production. Shane says there are only two companies he is aware of in the zein production industry—Freeman Industries LLC, a Massachusetts-based wet corn mill company, and Poet LLC. Each of the three technologies uses slightly different methods to extract zein from the corn. Prairie Gold’s technology is unique in that it uses virgin corn flour and extracts the zein protein prior to treating the corn with heat or chemicals, resulting in a higher-quality product, according to the company. Ruebe says the commercial plant at Illinois River Energy will be the first of its kind to use this type of process.

Ruebe declined to disclose anticipated capital costs for the construction of the facility or for production costs, but says GTL and Prairie Gold are full partners and will share the costs at undisclosed percentages. Prairie Gold is contributing the technology to the collaboration, while GTL will provide the manufacturing, engineering, construction and production expertise. The collaboration agreement identifies Illinois River Energy as the first commercial plant, but Ruebe says the possibility remains for others to become zein producers using Prairie Gold’s technology. For now, though, GTL holds exclusivity rights to use the technology. “As the market expands beyond what our plant at Illinois River Energy can do, yes there will be an opportunity for other plants to adopt this technology,” he says. “But it’s the intent of the collaboration agreement for Prairie Gold and GTL to work together to produce a substantial amount of zein protein.”

GTL’s involvement in zein production is indicative of a growing interest among ethanol producers to diversify their revenue streams in order to remain profitable. Ruebe says his company is also exploring various other coproduct options, including front-end corn oil extraction. “GTL’s intent is to grow from its base ethanol plant into a suite of biorefinery products,” he says. “Zein protein is one high-value product that’s essentially embedded in the corn, and this proprietary technique releases it for commercialization. It’s our intent to do other types of diversified expansions from our ethanol plant. Hopefully, this is the first successful adoption of that growth and expansion strategy.”

But while the industry is coming to terms with the need to produce a fleet of products, the lack of financing opportunities dampens any possibility of a widespread expansion soon. GTL has been able to finance its project primarily through overseas equity investors. The company trades as “GTL” on the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange and Ruebe says GTL’s UK investors believe in the company’s strategy and support the diversification project. The company has also fostered relationships forged with U.S. banks since 2006 when the ethanol plant was first built and has received support from various state agencies. “The Illinois Finance Authority, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development, the Governor’s Enterprise Zone planners, Rochelle’s Economic Development team, our friends within Illinois Corn Grower Associations, and several specialists from the University of Illinois community have all been instrumental in supporting and advancing the company’s growth initiatives since the ethanol plant’s inception,” Ruebe says. “We have the good fortune of being associated with quite an elite business development group.” 

—Kris Bevill