Going Deep With Enzyme Technology

No part of the corn kernel goes unexplored.
By Jack Rogers | June 25, 2013

The ethanol industry’s remarkable corn oil recovery trend is certainly getting its share of media attention this year—and why not? It’s an interesting story. Corn oil revenue has been key in times of tough margins and, in some cases, has meant the difference between continuing operations and idling the plant, reported Holly Jessen, managing editor, in the May issue of this magazine.

This is no surprise to those of us working with ethanol plants across the country. We, at Novozymes, saw up close and personal how last year’s corn quality and prices negatively impacted our customers. Reducing chemical and energy usage has become a sharp focus of producers. We’ve seen how even small improvements in ethanol yield can have a huge impact on profitability. Any opportunity to increase revenue or reduce cost is being pursued. Novozyme’s R&D group has been successful extracting and converting more starch from corn, so we decided to investigate opportunities to increase corn oil yields as well.

Our research started with the insight that a significant amount of oil remains bound inside the corn kernel. These oleosome bodies are not broken up during front-end processes, and therefore the oil inside is unrecoverable using conventional methods. We needed to develop an enzyme that was strong and specific enough to penetrate the oleosin protein layer that stores these oil bodies in order to release them for extraction.

In a nutshell, or corn kernel, that’s what we did. We launched Novozymes trademarked Olexa in June at the International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo in St. Louis. It’s the first enzyme designed to break through the oil-binding protein layer within the corn kernel to release more oil for extraction. In our five industrial-scale trials, we saw an average increase of 13 percent in corn oil yields, exceeding our expectations. 

But what really thrilled us was that in those same trials, plants saw on average 2 percent more ethanol. As Olexa is added in fermentation, we expected to see a noticeable ethanol yield increase, but 2 percent was impressive. We also saw an energy savings of 3 percent at the dryers. With Olexa added to fermentation, plants can set a new baseline for their oil yield, while preserving a full range of choices to improve their backend oil extraction processes.

Leveraging Cellulases for Saccharification
At the same time we were developing our oil recovery solution, we were also developing an idea we had to leverage cellulase activity for the next installment of our Spirizyme saccharification series. 

Here in the U.S., our main business is starch-based ethanol. But we are also making inroads into advanced biofuels with our cellulosic technology, which is becoming key in markets in South America and Europe, where biomass is more prevalent. We knew that our saccharification solutions could be more effective if we could remove more of the corn fiber matrix that was blocking some of the starch molecule from conversion. And then we discovered that advanced cellulase activity was the key.

At FEW, we also launched Spirizyme Achieve, which deploys advanced cellulase activity to degrade the corn-fiber network, releasing starch that’s inaccessible to traditional glucoamylases. Then, specialized component activities in the glucoamylase are able to work synergistically to convert the starch into glucose. Across six industrial-scale plant trials, we saw ethanol yield increases between 1 and 2.5 percent and an average energy savings of 3 percent.

These two launches came just eight months after we released Avantec, our yield-enhancing liquefaction solution, which is seeing an average ethanol yield increase of 3 percent and energy savings of 2 percent. We believe the combined benefits of these technologies represent a new phase for the fuel ethanol industry. Imagine what plants can achieve if they can realize 5 percent more ethanol and 13 percent more corn oil, using 8 percent less energy. A 100 MMgy plant deploying all three of these technologies could generate more than $5 million in additional annual profits.

I think we all know it’s been a challenging year in our industry. Whether it was commodity markets, corn prices, weather or politics, we often felt we were swimming against the tide. But hopefully, with advancements in enzyme technology that go deep into the tiniest, innermost molecules of the corn, no challenge is too big to overcome and the future economy of the industry looks bright.

Author: Jack Rogers 
Bioenergy Marketing Manager, Novozymes


The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ethanol Producer Magazine or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s).