OptiSwitch Technology could boost ethanol yields

By Anna Austin | July 08, 2008
Web exclusive posted July 28, 2008 at 9:57 a.m. CST

OptiSwitch Technology Corp., a high-performance semiconductor device, module and system research and development company, has developed a new process that increases ethanol yields from corn by 5 percent or more. The project was funded with $10 million contracted from the U.S. Department of Defense. The research was conducted and evaluated at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center in Edwardsville, Ill.

Ty Navapanich, director of operations at OptiSwitch Technology, said the technology uses an electroporation system much like one used in the medical field for effective drug delivery. "In the medical area they apply high voltage to the skin and what it does is temporarily pokes holes in the cells—much more effective when letting the drug into a specific area."

Navapanich says the new technology the company has developed is high power silicon switches that can handle 100,000 amps and volts to perform the process on a large scale. "In this case, we have built a machine that will poke holes in the corn kernels, causing permanent or temporary damage to the cell walls, increasing permeability and allowing the starch to come out and be more accessible to the enzymes," he said. "We took the mash that would normally go to an ethanol plant and ran it through our system. Low and behold, we got more fermentable sugars out of it."

"In the past, there have been work and research on this technology, but the problem with a system like that is that with the extremely high voltages, no one has been able to scale the electroporation to something that would be huge like an ethanol plant, without constant repairs and maintenance to the machinery," Navapanic said. "And that's exactly what we have done."

Navapanic said installing the technology in an ethanol plant would not be difficult. "One question that has risen is ‘is it economical?'" he said. "'Is it using more energy that it puts out?' We have calculated that it will only cost a few pennies more per gallon to generate five to ten percent more ethanol. With maintenance, equipment, cost and electricity, the estimated pay-back period will be about 12 to 18 months."

Under the same principle, Navapanic said the technology may be beneficial to the biodiesel industry as well. "We wanted to see where else we could apply this, and we decided to test extracting lipids out of algae. After algae sustainability issues are solved, the next question is how to economically extract the lipids," he said.

Navapanic said OptiSwitch Technology has been working with Arizona State University to perform experiments running algae through the same electroporation process as it did corn. "In one case, it showed that once we treated the algae, all the lipids came out by themselves," he said. "Usually after the treatment we go back to see how many remain by viewing the algae underneath a microscope—but in this instance, there wasn't any left. That means it all came out. It's another area that looks very promising."

Navapanic said OptiSwitch Technology, which is located in San Diego, Calif., is currently looking for ethanol plants to partner with and secure commercialization. "We've gotten some interest from some pretty big players in the industry," he said.