When Product Development is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Syngenta’s enzyme-producing corn variety requires redesigned farm-to-plant system
By Tim Tierney | October 18, 2011

This past February, the USDA deregulated Syngenta’s trademarked Enogen corn for use in ethanol production. While the deregulation of this new technology was a key milestone, it reflects just the tip of the iceberg in terms of bringing it to market. Designing a system to manage Enogen corn in ethanol plants and on the farms of the growers supplying it was almost as extensive a process as the development of the technology itself.

Enogen corn began as a unique organism discovered in natural marine hydrothermal systems. Years of development turned this organism into an amylase enzyme that could be expressed directly in corn grain—bypassing the need to add this key enzyme separately during conventional dry grind ethanol production.

What rapidly became apparent, however, were two things. First, the technology was so efficient that an ethanol plant needed just 10 to 20 percent of its total corn use to include Enogen corn while still realizing maximum benefits. The second thing that became obvious was that this technology was so well suited for ethanol production that the most value would be created by ensuring all the production was directed to ethanol plants.

Specialty, high-value crops in need of identity preservation are nothing new in agriculture. The industry has been successfully handling such things for years. Toward that end, Syngenta worked with Novecta, a joint effort between the Iowa and Illinois corn growers’ associations that specializes in grower training on best practices and ISO purity standards. Meanwhile, Syngenta tapped its own expertise in seed production and stewardship of regulated corn traits to design the Enogen corn system.

The result is a closed-loop production system that delivers a grain premium to growers for this specialty crop while allowing ethanol plants to improve ethanol throughput by 10 percent and reducing energy costs by approximately 8 percent. Best of all, ethanol plants need make only a few, if any, modifications to their existing grain storage and blending systems.

Practically ‘Drop-in’

Many in the ethanol industry have the misconception that an ethanol plant needs to convert to 100 percent Enogen corn to realize all benefits of the technology. Beginning in a corn field instead of in a stainless steel vat, Enogen corn can “dose” the ethanol plant with alpha amylase far more efficiently than adding microbial-derived enzymes. Because Enogen corn delivers a dose of amylase that is multiple times more potent than any liquid enzyme that can be added, the plant requires only a portion of its corn to be Enogen corn.

For ethanol plants, the only modification may be finding a separate storage bin for Enogen grain so it can be blended with regular dent corn at an approximate rate that is determined during the technology demonstration and testing process. Mind you, this is an approximate rate. Thanks to the forgiving nature of this technology, there is no need to rely on complex mixing technology that measures out product volume loads in micro level increments. A simple grain mixing system is all that is required, and it means adding Enogen corn to a plant is practically a drop-in.

Once in the plant, Enogen corn makes the process hum. The technology enables unprecedented solids loading—a change which has to be seen to be believed. In working with plants to incorporate the technology, we have seen cleaner pipes, less pressure on pumps and cleaner filters. Also, because the Enogen alpha amylase enzyme is thoroughly disbursed throughout the mash, formation of dough balls in the slurry mixer is avoided.

On-farm Stewardship

Of course, before plants can begin experiencing the benefits of Enogen corn, it must be produced in the field. Syngenta knew there were concerns about keeping Enogen grain separate from grain destined for other uses, including food products. That is why we worked with Novecta and others to create a comprehensive stewardship program that addresses how this grain is handled every step of the way. This system is thorough and well thought-out, and it is not difficult to implement.

Not every grower will have the opportunity to produce Enogen corn. Only ethanol plants that license Enogen technology from Syngenta will contract with local producers for their Enogen corn, and only growers with an executed Enogen contract can access the seed. To qualify for the contract, growers must have on-farm storage. Syngenta estimates few growers will put more than half of their acres in Enogen corn because of this requirement. While that may limit what they can contract, it also helps with managing the technology on their farm operation.

The contract also specifies production by the acre rather than the bushel to help protect growers against adverse conditions that might reduce per-acre yields. As it is, Syngenta’s Enogen hybrids have been shown to yield around 195 bushels per acre on average on irrigated acres. Enogen hybrids also include insect protection and herbicide tolerance traits and elite genetics. Growers do not have to sacrifice yield or performance to get this 30- to 50-cent-per-bushel premium.

Other contract terms include stewardship provisions and a buyer’s call with flexible delivery options. Because corn pollen can and does move, Syngenta requires growers to plant border rows of non-Enogen corn. Due to the flexibility of Enogen corn in ethanol production systems, however, these border rows can be harvested, stored and delivered together with the Enogen grain. Here, the process differs from other identity-preserved grain products that require border rows to be harvested and handled separately. A minimum of 12 border rows is required, but due to planter configurations, growers can use up to 16 border rows if that works better for them. Growers are required to clean out their planters and combines to make sure their Enogen corn remains contained.

Not surprisingly, this new technology requires some training for maximum benefit. Plants entering into Enogen technology licensing agreements first go through a technology demonstration trial, which typically takes about three months. This enables the plant to gain valuable processing experience with Enogen corn and allows the Enogen technical support team to help tailor processes for maximum benefit to the plant.

Once an ethanol plant signs a licensing agreement, an Enogen account manager will continue to work with the plant on recruiting contract growers, training and stewardship, and will also liaise with the local Syngenta sales team including professional agronomists. Each plant also is assigned an Enogen technical support specialist with experience in fermentation and enzymes. These technical specialists work with the plant managers on the demonstration trial, and also provide ongoing process optimization and technical support once the technology has been adopted.
Author: Tim Tierney
Enogen Marketing Manager, Syngenta Group Co.
(612) 801-9775


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