'Fiber Is the New Starch'

Novozymes has released a platform to convert more fiber to ethanol, giving producers an attractive 'D3 lift.' The company is also helping its customers navigate the low-carbon fuels marketplace, streamlining certification and assisting where it can.
By Lisa Gibson | December 28, 2020

It’s the rallying call at Novozymes: “Fiber is the new starch.”

“It’s to work so hard that we don’t talk about fiber anymore—we don’t have to,” says Kalpesh Parekh, senior manager in business development for Novozymes. “It becomes so easy and so normal that it’s not special anymore. But to get to that point, it’s a lot of hard work.”

Novozymes has released its Fiberex platform, for in-situ and separate corn fiber processing: Fiberex F1 and Fiberex R1. The Fiberex platform reimagines ethanol, Parekh says. “This goes back to our customers’ needs. They’re looking to diversify their business and make it more sustainable.

“Fiberex is not a product, it’s a platform,” Parekh says. “And the idea is to consistently launch breakthrough solutions for new products, be it enzymes, be it organisms like yeast, or process pieces to work together to then convert fiber into ethanol.”

More than a decade of biomass conversion expertise has lent Novozymes research and development firepower to leverage. “We have learned a lot and now we are investing more in fiber-focused solutions to make tailormade products for fiber conversions.”

Brian Brazeau, Novozymes’ vice president for bioenergy, adds, “I would really characterize it as Novozymes even helping to lead the market. We have a long history of looking at complex substrates, biomass, how do we break that down and create value? How do we take our biological tools, apply them to this biological raw material and allow our customers to create value from that?”

The pandemic in 2020 followed 2019’s negative producer margins, and the ethanol industry has struggled, Brazeau says. “It’s really about us understanding that our customers have been hurting, have been looking at additional ways to create value. We do know how to develop microbes that break down complex materials like fiber, and help our customers create value from them.”

The Platform
Fiberex R1 is an enzyme for separate conversion. Because the product focuses specifically on conversion of pretreated fiber into ethanol, and uses the appropriate high dose of enzyme, the fiber conversion is near 6%. “It’s a cocktail of enzymes that works really well with pretreated corn fiber,” Parekh says.

Fiberex F1, for in-situ processing, reaches more than 2% fiber conversion.

Both iterations allow producers to do more with less, Parekh emphasizes. “The same kernel of corn—create more ethanol, create more corn oil, reduce energy consumption and create maybe a little bit more sustainable future for us.”

The holistic approach Novozymes takes is crucial for optimal performance.

“The yeast can’t work and do its job optimally if it’s developed and designed independently of the enzyme systems,” Brazeau says. “We’ve carried that thinking over.

“To create an optimal fermentation process to make ethanol, we need to link all these systems together. We’ve been a leader in thinking about how we do that and Fiberex is a good example of that.”

Ace Ethanol in Stanley, Wisconsin, recently switched to Fiberex R1 for its separate corn fiber conversion process, D3MAX.  “They’re pretty happy about it.” Parekh says.

“The Novozymes enzyme will work better in our equipment,” says Mark Yancey, chief technology officer for D3MAX. “We expect better performance and are waiting on the data to confirm that.”

Brazeau says, “Our biology might marry well with a hardware or a processing technology to create value, and the advantage from our point of view, at least, is here is the additional value that an ethanol producer can create, which doesn’t require them to invest in any additional capital.”

D3MAX at Ace Ethanol started up in January 2020 and, through early December, had been online 310 out of 320 days.   “Overall, the plant continues to perform very well,” Yancey says. “The online time is at 97 to 98%, so since Jan. 9 (2020), the first day of startup, we’ve only had a handful of days when the D3MAX plant was down. So, we’re extremely happy with that. It’s proven so far to be very reliable, which of course is a big plus for any kind of cellulosic process.”  

Since startup, Ace has made modifications to the plant to correct some issues, including the optimized R1 for fiber conversion, Yancey says. Overall, the design and construction have worked well, he adds.

Since June, the D3MAX plant has made steady improvements to the amount of cellulosic ethanol produced. “Every month the amount of ethanol produced has gone up,” Yancey says. “The plant is now running at nearly 95% of design yield.”

The goal is 9,000 to 9,500 gallons per day, or a D3 lift of 6.5% or more. “We’re getting there.”

In-Situ R&D
Fiberex F1 is in use at a few plants, but Parekh is eager to continue releasing new iterations.
“We have heavily invested and continue to invest in in-situ fiber conversion because we realize that not everybody is able to invest in the capex,” he says. “So in-situ fiber conversion is a big piece of what we do here.”

Novozymes is working to include hemicellulases with its traditional cellulase products to open up the fiber matrix even more, boosting fiber conversion another 1.5%, Parekh says. The process also bumps corn oil production by up to 20%, he says. “That’s an immediate revenue gain for customers.”

Going forward, new iterations of the Fiberex platform are expected to cross 3.5% cellulosic ethanol. Parekh expects the next iteration to be released in 2021, with another in 2022. “We’ll soon become the new norm in terms of solutions for fiber conversion.

“The idea behind the platform is consistently launch new solutions that keep moving the ball forward in converting the most amount of fiber into ethanol. So Fiberex F1 is just a very small rung of the ladder and we’re quickly going to jump into the novel combinations of cellulases and hemicellulases, which would be the next Fiberex iteration.”

Navigating Certification
A vital piece of fiber solutions is proving cellulosic conversion to regulatory agencies like CARB. Parekh says Novozymes helps producers navigate that process, as well. “We know that the biology is only a piece of the puzzle. So we work really hard and seamlessly with engineering companies … and bring everybody at the table for the customer to make sure the process is as seamless as possible in moving forward with CARB.

“That’s another key part of the platform is our commitment to not only bring the best solutions out there, but to make business easier for our customers.”

Novozymes works closely with CARB, the U.S. EPA and others to make sure certifications and validations go smoothly. “We make sure there’s clarity and customers can do it easily,” Parekh says.
“Customers come to us and say, ‘this is a great solution but how do we make it work with CARB?’ So we coach them in that process as well.

“It’s really great when years of R&D and the right partnership approach with our customers works in favor of them and helps them diversify more and be more sustainable in terms of business.”

Parekh emphasizes the sustainability of fiber conversions. “One of the things I’m grateful for is the work of CARB, who have provided a great environment for fiber-based ethanol driving diversification in business and for our planet’s sustainability.

“We’re really thankful for California and Oregon’s carbon programs. Going forward hopefully it’ll happen in Washington, New York, Minnesota and other places as well. We’re thankful to these states and these regulatory bodies for creating an environment where we can create these new solutions and innovations.”

Ethanol producers are pioneers in sustainability and biotechnology, Brazeau says.

“The ethanol industry is an example of what biotechnology and agriculture can create. And we think about that very holistically—what are new biological tools that we can bring out to our ethanol-producing customers to help them continue to be pioneers in this space?”

Author: Lisa Gibson
Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]