Field-Grown Enzymes

The rollout of Syngenta’s Enogen corn benefits both farmers growing the hybrid grain and ethanol plants using it to produce biofuel.
By Holly Jessen | September 23, 2013

James Doxtad has grown 320 acres of Enogen corn and delivered it to Quad County Corn Processors for the past two years. Next growing season, he’s planning to nearly double that to the maximum amount of acres allowed, or half of his approximately 1,200-acre family farm, located just miles from the 35 MMgy ethanol plant in Galva, Iowa.

Doxtad called planting Enogen corn a no-brainer, considering the 40-cent premium price he gets for the corn. Plus, he was already delivering some regular No. 2 field corn to Quad County ethanol plant, of which he is a shareholder. “The ethanol plant is helping us with a better premium and we’re helping them produce ethanol more efficiently,” he tells Ethanol Producer Magazine. “So I think it’s kind of a 'you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,' and everybody seems to be benefiting in the long run.”  

Syngenta’s Enogen corn is the first grain bio-engineered specifically for the ethanol industry, with the alpha amylase enzyme necessary for dry grind ethanol production built into the grain. The corn hybrid was fully deregulated by the USDA in early 2011, paving the way for commercial growth and use at ethanol plants. 

To date, three ethanol plants have signed commercial agreements with Syngenta. Quad County was the first to pull the trigger in late 2011. By the end of 2012, another two ethanol plants had signed on, including Plymouth Energy LLC, a 50 MMgy plant in Merrill, Iowa, and Bonanza BioEnergy LLC, a 55 MMgy facility in Garden City, Kan. Quad County is the only ethanol plant currently producing ethanol using Enogen corn, while Plymouth Energy and Bonanza BioEnergy are wrapping up their first year of working with area growers and will use the grain after this year’s harvest, the company says. Another eight ethanol plants have technology trial agreements to test the grain, five of which were signed this year. 

In all, 65,000 acres of Enogen corn was planted this year in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, says David Witherspoon, head of renewable fuels for Syngenta. The 2012 drought did slow the rollout of Enogen corn somewhat. “Would we have liked to have more corn to do more plant trials? The answer is yes,” he says. Still, things are starting to pick up. By next year, the company anticipates that acreage number could go up to more than 100,000 or 120,000, depending on the success rate of current testing programs at ethanol plants. 

In the Field 
Nick Hatcher, a grower in southwest Kansas, says planting Enogen corn is an opportunity to maximize his revenue and corn production. In all, he planted about 60 percent of his acres in corn, about 4 percent of which is Enogen corn, destined for Bonanza BioEnergy. The facility is located about 60 miles north of Hatcher’s farm, which is further than the corn producer’s typical corn-delivery radius of 5 to 20 miles. However, Hatcher adds that he expects to grow substantially more Enogen corn in the future, should Arkalon Ethanol LLC decide to start using the corn hybrid. That facility is located only 8 miles from Hatcher’s farm and is the destination of some of the regular No. 2 corn he grows. Bonanza and Arkalon are both operated by Conestoga Energy Partners LLC. 

There are some things farmers must do differently when growing Enogen corn. However, both Doxtad and Hatcher say the adjustments weren’t difficult and the premium price they can get for the corn is worth it. “Once we made the commitment and understood the circumstances needed to make this happen it has become standard operating procedure for us,” Hatcher says. 

One of those requirements is completing paperwork, something Doxtad says isn’t an extra burden because he’s always kept detailed planting records anyway. And, farming equipment must be cleaned after Enogen corn is planted or harvested, another task that isn’t difficult to complete, especially with today’s newer equipment. Finally, harvested Enogen corn must be stored in separate bins and delivered to the ethanol plant during certain delivery windows as specified in the contract between the farmer and the ethanol plant. For example, Doxtad makes his Enogen corn deliveries to Quad County on specific days in the month of February. The buffer row of regular No. 2 corn around every field of Enogen corn is the requirement that Doxad would do away with if he could, but it’s not a deal breaker. It does take a little more advance planning but it’s not very time consuming, he said. Witherspoon adds that cleaning equipment isn’t difficult to do and takes minutes, not hours. “It’s not kernel clean,” he says. Another time-saving measure for farmers is that the corn in the buffer rows can be harvested and stored together with the Enogen corn field as a whole. “That’s a really big deal because if you had to store that separately, that’s difficult to do,” he says. “Mixing it with the Enogen corn makes it easier to handle.”

At the Plant
The Denco II LLC ethanol plant located in Morris, Minn., will begin an Enogen corn technology trial a few months after harvest, says Mick Miller, president of Energetix LLC, which manages that ethanol plant and others. “Being able to procure your enzymes from the field is a very, very cool and unique thing,” he says. “We looked at it as, it’s the next step for enzyme improvement.”

The three-month trial is conducted in three parts, starting with a baseline evaluation followed by use of Enogen corn and ending with another post-Enogen corn evaluation. Miller is excited about the potential for the company. “If the Enogen corn brings value to our plant, we’re willing to work harder to capture that value and in today’s environment I think most producers are in that same boat,” he says. “What can we do, where can we put more effort in order to capture value in our facility?” 

In appraising the results of the trial, the company will carefully consider a long list of key performance indicators. That includes but isn’t limited to yield, energy use, water and chemical consumption, fermentation performance, residual starch measurements and corn oil yields. “You name it,” he says, “we’ll be looking at pretty much everything.” 

Ethanol plants use about 10 to 20 percent Enogen corn, depending on the facility, and the rest is regular No. 2 corn. “We go into the plant and we work to adjust the blend of Enogen corn, which is really the enzyme, to what is the optimal dosage rate for that plant, the way that plant operates,” Witherspoon says. 

Data gathered using a propriety model during testing at an ethanol plant showed Enogen corn could result in very positive results for a 100 MMgy ethanol plant, the company says. On an annual basis, that includes potential savings of 68 million gallons of water, 10 million kilowatt hours of electricity, 350 billion Btus of natural gas and 100 pounds of CO2 emissions. Compare that to the numbers provided to EPM for a story published in the May 2011 issue, which included savings of 450,000 gallons of water, 1.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity and 244 billion Btus of natural gas, numbers that were significantly lower than the more recent figures. 

One of the main benefits of using Enogen corn is its power to change viscosity in the plant. In other words, the slurry going through the plant is transformed from a gel-like substance to more like water. “The enzyme mechanics, or how it how it hydrolyzes starch is very different from any other enzyme,” he says. That makes it easier to pump through the plant, saving energy and reducing wear and tear on plant equipment. This also allows the facility to reduce water and increase solids, resulting in more fermentable material and more efficient ethanol production. 

The hybrid has another benefit on the corn-delivery side, Witherspoon says. Working directly with corn producers to contract for Enogen corn acres helps ethanol plants develop better working relationships with their corn suppliers. “Ethanol plants generally want to get closer to growers, they want access to corn, they want options for access to corn, and not only Enogen corn but other corn,” he says. 

Miller talked about this angle as well. Denco II already procures corn directly from corn growers and has been working to increase that yearly because it helps them get access to the best quality corn. If the ethanol plant does end up signing a commercial contract with Syngenta, the Enogen corn program will only push the company further along in that goal.  “We’re interested in procuring as much corn as we can from the producer, direct,” he says. “We see it as a very, very good fit between the producer and the plant.”

Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]