Protein Packs A Punch in New Ethanol Coproducts

Two companies gain traction in the quest to produce high-protein feed products from ethanol coproducts. This article appears in the May issue of EPM.
By Holly Jessen and Kassidi Andres | April 11, 2016

Novita Nutrition and Nutrinsic Corp. approach producing high-value feed products from ethanol coproducts differently—Novita removes unsaturated fat from distillers grains while Nutrinsic targets the condensed syrup typically added to distillers grains. Both are targeting the ethanol industry as suppliers of the coproduct streams used to produce new nutritious feed products.  

Novita, led by President and CEO Don Endres, is building its first production facility in Aurora, South Dakota, with full operations expected to begin at the end of 2016. The company has developed a patented process to remove all of the unsaturated fat to improve the digestibility of distillers grains. The trademarked NovaMeal will be pelletized and initially marketed to the dairy industry. Distillers grains will be transported to the facility, primarily by truck from ethanol plants within a 100-mile radius, but also via rail. The facility in Aurora will receive about 1,300 tons of distillers grains daily, producing about 1,200 tons of NovaMeal and 100 tons of corn oil. The corn oil will be  marketed initially as poultry feed while other markets are explored, including corn oil as a biodiesel feedstock.

NovaMeal is a cost-effective and highly-digestible feed product and will create new demand in new markets for distillers grains, Endres says, noting that he believes the product will do well internationally. “Once we get the first plant up and running, we will be looking for additional locations across the Midwest. We are looking forward to proving out the product and expanding it.”

Nutrinsic’s product lines include feeds with 50- and 60-plus protein content and  a natural fertilizer coproduct with applications in commercial lawn, plant, greenhouse and retail lawn care products. The largest markets for Nutrinsic’s trademarked feed product, ProFloc, are aquaculture, poultry, piglet and hog markets, in that order, says Dan Simon, president and CEO.

The feed product already is in production using process streams from breweries. The company’s patented process harnesses underutilized nutrient sources as a substrate to grow bacteria, which is separated, dried and packaged for sale. One plant in China has partnered with Anheuser-Busch since 2014 and construction is expected to be completed in June on Nutrinsic’s first commercial plant in the U.S.—a facility in Ohio built in partnership with MillerCoors.

The company is working to build additional production facilities, Simon says. In the U.S., Nutrinsic is focusing on using condensed syrup from ethanol plants and glycerin from biodiesel plants as its feedstock for its bacteria-based feed product. Condensed syrup from ethanol plants is 10 to 15 times more concentrated than process streams from breweriess, which allows for larger feed production facilities, Simon notes.

The company is in negotiations with two potential ethanol plant partners, Simon says, and, it’s unknown whether the next facility will be a joint venture with an ethanol plant partner or owned and operated by Nutrinsic. He anticipates the company will have a signed agreement sometime this year and will start construction by January 2017.

Novita Evolution
Endres, known in the industry as cofounder and CEO of VeraSun Energy Corp., tells EPM that the idea for NovaMeal had its beginnings in 2005. Like others in the ethanol industry, he was studying the various nutritional components of distillers grains, which potentially have higher values when separated. “We set out to find ways to monetize that additional value, and really focused on what we viewed as our best, highest value market—that being the high performing, lactating dairy cow,” he says. “She needs a lot of high-quality nutrients, and of course, produces a very high level of milk as well. So we set out to understand better why distillers grains was not being included at a higher inclusion rate in the diet.”

Research showed that corn oil, which is high in unsaturated fat, negatively impacts the rumen’s ability to break down fiber and produce amino acids and energy. In dairy cattle, that results in reduced milkfat levels. So, even though the economic model shows more distillers grains could be included in dairy cattle rations, it was not, primarily because of unsaturated fats, he says.

Today, the company’s NovaMeal, which has had the corn oil removed, has gone through multiple university trials, with a few research papers published in the Journal of Dairy Science. Meanwhile, full commercial dairy trials in California and the Midwest have been completed, both with good results. Nick Vande Weerd, owner of Pleasant Dutch Dairy, where a feed trial was ongoing in March, told EPM they were very happy with the results so far. “We will definitely continue to use the product in our rations and look forward to their plant operating at full capacity.” 

“We are entering a new era in the feed business where dairymen, and their nutritionists specifically, are not just looking at feed and its analytical value by nutrient, but they’re looking at absorption rates of individual amino acids,” Endres says, noting that understanding continues to evolve. “What we found with our product, once we’ve put it through our process, is we are actually able to achieve a high level of available absorbable amino acids in the intestinal tract. “So for dairy producers feeding a protein supplement, they’re looking to utilize more of the protein, and deliver it to the intestinal tract to improve efficiency.”

Nutrinsic History 
More than 10 years ago, the founders of Nutrinsic began with an idea that emerged from water and wastewater treatment using aerobic digestion, Simon says. Researchers developed a process to tailor the growth of certain bacteria with specific concentrations of protein. The original concept was to produce feed and, eventually, with regulatory approval, a food product.

Simon, who has a background in the ethanol industry, was appointed leader of the organization at the end of last year. In the past, he served as cofounder, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Biofuel Energy Corp., which built the 115 MMgy ethanol plants in Wood River, Nebraska, and Fairmont, Minnesota, now owned and operated by Green Plains Inc.

With slight differences depending on the technology, a 100 MMgy ethanol plant produces about 100,000 tons per year of syrup. From his work in the ethanol industry, Simon understands the coproduct as an element of distillers grains. “We really had more syrup than we knew what to do with and we would just throw it on our DDGS because we had no better use for it,” he says.

Essentially, ethanol producers could put only half of the syrup on their distillers grains, still get the color and other properties needed, and the other half would be available to produce Nutrinsic’s protein product, he says. Using 50,000 tons of condensed syrup from an ethanol plant per year would produce about 30,000 tons of ProFloc, Nutrinsic’s single-cell protein feed, Simon says, noting that the product could generate from $35 million to $50 million dollars in revenue. “So it’s a very high value product and it supports the concept and evolution of an ethanol plant becoming a biorefinery,” he says.

Aquaculture is a large and fast growing market, with good opportunities for ProFloc. “The amino acids profile is quite similar to fish meal,” he says, noting that it’s a balanced feed, high in amino acids which are difficult to produce artificially. To date, the company has completed feed trials primarily in the aquaculture and hog markets, with very good results. “In many trials, the fish and the piglets would eat as much as they could,” he says. “We actually had to control how much they ate.”

Fishmeal prices are volatile and move between $1,400 and $2,400 a ton. Long term, the goal is to sell ProFloc for similar prices. However, as was also the case when distillers grains was a newcomer in the feed market, in the beginning ProFloc will be sold at a discount to fishmeal, Simon says.

Author: Holly Jessen
Ethanol Producer Magazine
Contributing author: Kassidi Andres, intern