Getting More from Corn—Kernel to Stalk

Ethanol Producer Magazine editor Tom Bryan reflects on the top articles from the publication's August issue, including the quest to maximize distillers corn oil recovery and the grand opening of Verbio's RNG and soon-to-be corn biorefinery in Iowa.
By Tom Bryan | July 20, 2022

A good source, Bill Griffiths of Flottweg, reminds us in this issue that while corn biorefining is becoming ultra-advanced, the grain’s utilization journey is still nascent, similar to where fossil fuels were 120 years ago. “Before cars were really a thing, they just wanted to get the kerosene out to light lamps,” Griffiths tells us in “More Ways to Max Out DCO,” starting on page 16. We’ve heard that analogy for years, but it still rings true. The corn kernel—indeed, the whole corn plant—is on a similar path as petroleum refining, but in an ultra-low-carbon way. And ethanol might just be our lamp oil—a gateway to myriad higher-value products.

We’re seeing this already, of course with coproducts like protein and distillers corn oil (DCO) starting to financially outperform ethanol. Record-high DCO prices—80 cents a pound in some markets—are motivating ethanol producers to explore all available options to maximize recovery. And, man, are they ever doing it. Fluid Quip and Green Plains are together achieving as much as 1.4 pounds of DCO per bushel at a facility in Nebraska using the companies’ latest technology. Other producers are hitting very high numbers, too, not just through improved mechanical means, but by leveraging control points, optimizing foulant prevention, deploying informed enzymatic strategies and disciplined operational audits. This “no-stone-left-unturned” approach is not only boosting DCO yield but improving overall plant performance.

As alluded to above, it’s not just the corn kernel that we’re getting better at refining, but the whole corn plant. Following the tumultuous corn stover ethanol production efforts of the past decade—which we are not giving up on, by the way—a German company has reinvented the site of DuPont’s former cellulosic biorefinery in Nevada, Iowa. That campus is becoming a diversified biorefinery that will soon utilize almost the entire corn plant. And they’re not starting with the kernel.

As we report in “Verbio’s Grand Opening,” on page 24, the company named in the headline is already producing renewable natural gas (RNG) from corn stover, and intends to start processing corn itself—the kernel—to make ethanol. When that happens, thin stillage from the ethanol operation will be used as a supplementary RNG feedstock alongside stover. In true biorefining fashion, the plant will not only produce well-known products like DCO but less common outputs like nitrogen fertilizer and, eventually, synthetic natural gas from CO2.

Time will tell what happens at Verbio, but even as an integrated cellulosic RNG/corn ethanol facility, the operation would be one of the fullest extractions of value from corn, kernel to stalk, ever built. It’s also an encouraging continuation of the bold corn stover logistics effort started in the Nevada area years ago. Picking up where its predecessors left off, Verbio is acquiring its stover within a 45-mile radius of the plant, not only contracting the necessary acres and paying by the bale, but carrying the cost of collecting, baling and transporting the feedstock to the biorefinery.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who attended the biorefinery’s grand opening in May, called it a “remarkable testament to the countless uses of corn and how many more are just waiting to be discovered and unleashed.”

Governor, we agree.

Author: Tom Bryan
President & Editor, BBI International