A Triple Play for Higher Yields

EdeniQ Inc. has a three-phase yield enhancement program to help producers obtain more ethanol—including cellulosic ethanol—from a bushel of corn.
By Ryan C. Christiansen | June 03, 2009
In baseball, a triple play is the act of making three outs during the same play. Most triple plays are initiated by the shortstop. Because more balls tend to be hit to the shortstop than any other position on the field, it's only natural the shortstop should be involved in triple plays.

In business, Larry Gross is a shortstop of sorts. He positions himself to be a part of the action and he has played the game in both Silicon Valley and in the Corn Belt. A former executive for computer technology companies Idealab and Cendant Software, Gross is now the CEO for EdeniQ Inc., an ethanol technology company that hopes to make a triple play to increase yields in the ethanol industry. EdeniQ recently began commercial trials of its Corn3 Yield Enhancement Program, which uses three separate-but-complementary technologies—improved yeast, a proprietary milling and mixing device, and enzymes—to increase yield at an ethanol plant.

Red Trail Energy LLC is one of the first ethanol producers to use EdeniQ's Corn3 program. The company's 50 MMgy ethanol plant near Richardton, N.D., has been making ethanol this year from what CEO Mick Miller says is essentially U.S. No. 3 Yellow grade corn—a high-moisture, low-weight, low-starch corn—as the result of a late start to last year's growing season, cooler temperatures in the spring and summer, and a harvest season filled with heavy rains and early snow. "The crop just didn't mature," Miller says, "so it's been really key for us to be able to hold—and actually increase—our yield as we move forward. One would expect that, running on a lower grade corn, you're going to see a significant yield loss. One of our goals is to alleviate that concern."

Instead of trying to influence the weather for the health of the North Dakota corn crop, Red Trail has turned to EdeniQ for help, a company with a name that joins the concepts of edenic—of or pertaining to the Garden of Eden—and IQ, or intelligence.

Corn3 offers what EdeniQ says could be a 10 percent overall increase in yield for the ethanol producer or a tenth-of-a-gallon increase in yield from each phase of the technology.

The company says these increases have been proven at EdeniQ's large-scale pilot plant in Visalia, Calif., and they are now being proven in commercial trials.

"As we all know, the industry's profitability is probably under more stress today than they ever expected it to be, which calls for innovative solutions and improvements in efficiency," says Larry Peckous, vice president of sales for EdeniQ. Peckous has more than 28 years experience in the starch and biofuels industries. Most recently, he spent two years in China as principal scientist for Novozymes. "While a lot has been done in computer controls and enzymes, very little has been done to actually improve the yield of ethanol from starch," he says. "EdeniQ has this suite of three different but complementary and additive technologies that each increase the amount of ethanol that you can obtain from a bushel of corn."

Peter Kilner, vice president of business development for EdeniQ, explains. "The first phase is drop-in yeast that reduces byproduct glycerol formation and channels that into ethanol, so it optimizes fermentation. The second phase goes after some of the starch that is in large particles and that doesn't [normally] get converted. It reduces the size of the large particles, bringing up more surface area for the enzymes to get at all of the starch. That's done through a proprietary milling device called the Cellunator. That device also frees up the cellulosic fiber in the corn kernel, which enables our phase three, which is a proprietary cocktail of enzymes that gets at the cellulosic fiber, giving us a further boost in yield by converting that into ethanol." Kilner brings business development experience to EdeniQ as a former executive for Catalytica Energy Systems Inc. and Arbor Vita Corp.

Company History
EdeniQ was formed in early 2008 out of AltraBiofuels Inc., an ethanol producer with plants in Goshen, Calif., and Coshocton, Ohio. AltraBiofuels made headlines in 2006 when it secured significant venture capital from several prominent private equity investors, among them Khosla Ventures and also Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Now head of EdeniQ, Gross is the former CEO of AltraBiofuels.

EdeniQ has been working with researchers at the Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., to identify the bacteria in the stomachs of termites that produce enzymes to break down cellulose in plants and to optimize the behavior of those bacteria, according to the Institute. The Worcester team has also been adapting EdeniQ's proprietary strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, more commonly known as brewer's yeast or baker's yeast, to be more resistant to ethanol, enabling the yeast to ferment higher concentrations of the fuel. EdeniQ has also licensed technology from Tianjin University in Tianjin, China.

EdeniQ's chief technology officer is Adrian Galvez, who helped to bring the AltraBiofuels biorefineries online and who has also worked for Archer Daniels Midland Co., Grain Processing Corp., and Delta-T Corp. "We all come from some very diversified backgrounds," Galvez says, "but we're a process technology company. We were researching the conversion of cellulosic materials and because of that, we looked at the installed capital that's out there in the existing infrastructures and said, ‘You know, these plants are basically our brothers and we need to make sure these plants continue to evolve and have some way to progress systematically to a future state. Let's not look at putting $250 million in capital into some place that gets you 10 MMgy of ethanol.' I mean, let's face it, that's not profitable."

Improved Yeast
Phase one of the Corn3 program is EdeniQ's patented LGY-100 Yeast, which can be used in the industry's current fermenters, giving ethanol producers immediate increases in yield, Peckous says.

According to Galvez, the key improvement in the yeast is its ability to convert starch to glucose while producing approximately one-third less glycerol than what is produced using conventional yeast.

Miller says Red Trail is convinced that phase one works as promised. "We have been on the yeast for about a month and we have found the positive results that we were hoping for," he says. "We have recently signed on long-term with EdeniQ as a licensee."

Miller says before signing on with EdeniQ for the yeast, Red Trail evaluated the risks and rewards and also put a premium on getting to know the team at EdeniQ. "We found a comfort level to be able to go ahead and get into a trial," he says. "EdeniQ was very flexible as far as doing more of an internal trial before going full-scale into fermentation, just to build a little bit of mutual trust back and forth. We wanted to be able to explain and show how we operate our facility so that they could trust what our people are doing and also to get a feel for how the yeast are going to react in more of a true ethanol environment. We ran some smaller fermentation trials—much smaller than a full-scale 750,000 gallon fermenter—and we found the results to be very appealing, so we moved right into the full-scale trial and found really good results from that, also."

Miller says implementing EdeniQ's LGY-100 Yeast was a straightforward process. "In today's environment, most plants are a little more careful as far as what they're doing and what they're working on," he says, "because yield is very important, especially today when margins are as slim as they are. It was just a matter of making sure that we all knew what we were looking for and that we were all on the same page. We quickly found that things were going as planned and it was simply just a replacement. We didn't really make any operational changes."

The result, Miller says, is a higher yield for Red Trail. "We have definitely found increases," he says. "We're still trying to work together to formulate exactly what they are. The more data, the more accurate your numbers become. So the longer we run, the more confidence we will build in what we believe is a good program here; but we have definitely seen the reduction in glycerol and an increase in protein levels in our distillers grains. I think those are some real key indicators that this is having a very positive impact on Red
Trail's yield."

The Cellunator
EdeniQ's chance to win the ethanol equivalent of a Golden Glove for higher yields could prove to be its proprietary piece of milling and mixing equipment known as the Cellunator. Kilner says the primary role of the Cellunator, a rotary milling device about the size of a small van, is to reduce the particle size of larger starch particles and to break down cellulose so that yeast and enzymes can be more effective. The Cellunator complements but doesn't replace a plant's existing milling equipment. "From the hammer mill you'll get a broad distribution of particles. This device will reduce the larger particles and create a more uniform particle size without touching the smaller end of the particle size distribution."

Kilner says the Cellunator avoids making fines that would cause downstream separation problems. "It's well-known that if you were to just grind the heck out of the corn, with a finer particle size you would get a higher yield," he says, "but then it would be impossible to operate the downstream separation."

Galvez says incorporating the Cellunator at an ethanol plant is also straightforward. "This is a plug-n-play device," he says. "What's nice is that this is a skid-mounted unit. It goes in like a pump. We don't believe it's going to be any kind of equipment that has a tremendous amount of wear or will bring any new tremendous maintenance cost to the plant."
Galvez says the energy requirements for the Cellunator are less than .02 kilowatts per gallon of ethanol produced. "The plant is going to hardly see an increase [in energy requirements]," he says. "That will be offset by the fact that you will have some reduced drying energy [costs] and you will have some other energies in the plant that will actually go down."

Miller says Red Trail found the Cellunator to be very straightforward to install. "We had existing tie-ins within our plant that allowed us to run in and out of this thing and to be able to bypass it if needed," he says. "Most plants would probably have the ability to implement something like this very easily."

So far, Red Trail has implemented phase one and phase two of EdeniQ's Corn3 program. The ethanol producer will be ready to implement the phase three enzymes, which requires using the Cellunator to break down cellulose, as soon as EdeniQ is ready. EdeniQ officials say the commercial launch of the phase three enzymes will be in late 2009 or early 2010.

When that happens, Red Trail will begin producing what has been touted as a home run in the ethanol industry: cellulosic ethanol.

"When you get into phase 3, you will really begin to start making cellulosic biofuels," Galvez says. "Now you're talking about 4 to 6 percent (ethanol) that could qualify from a [renewable identification number] credit standpoint."

Gross says EdeniQ's Corn3 program can help the existing corn ethanol industry to supply the 100 MMgy cellulosic biofuels requirement mandated by the renewable fuels standard for 2010. "With a dozen or so customers, we could get a pretty substantial share of the cellulosic (ethanol) mandate for next year," he says. "While some of the naysaysers are saying [the ethanol industry] is not going to be able to produce that, with this technology it may be possible to do that in this near timeframe."

High-Protein DDGS
An increased ethanol yield results in the reduced production of distillers grains, approximately 1.6 to 1.7 fewer pounds of distillers grains for every pound of ethanol gained, Galvez says. The distillers grains produced will have a higher protein content, which Galvez says command a premium in the marketplace. "Now you have a new way to receive that benefit without the expense of corn fractionation," he says. "Typically, along the phases you will see roughly about an 8 to 10 percent decrease in distillers grains volumes for phase one and two and then you'll see almost about a 17 percent decrease in phase three, because you're converting all of the cellulosic material."

Kilner notes that producing less distillers grains means drying less, too. "Any change in the value or revenue from distillers grains across the phases should be in the same magnitude in savings in energy," he says. "The biggest impact on the economics of the ethanol producer is the reduction in corn costs."

Looking Ahead
Beyond an increase in ethanol yield and the production of high-protein distillers grains, ethanol producers might consider other drivers for adopting the enhancements that EdeniQ has to offer, including the need to reduce lifecycle carbon emissions through using less corn and energy inputs.

Miller says Red Trail, one of the first coal-fired ethanol plants in the nation, is very aware of the need to improve its carbon footprint. He said originally, Red Trail's model was to use less energy by using coal. "If that's going to penalize us in the future we need to continue to seek and find ways to make our plant more efficient and, ultimately, more cost-effective," Miller says. "There are a lot of hurdles coming at us in the future and there are still a lot of unknowns. I think it's important for our industry to continue to optimize and reduce our carbon footprint. If we can ultimately produce a portion of our ethanol from the fiber that is currently in that corn, I think that's huge. Long-term, if cellulosic ethanol is going to be implemented and viable, I think this is going to be one of the major pathways to get us there. Clearly, the more efficient your facility is, the better off you are in so many different ways."

Kilner notes that increasing efficiencies at the nation's corn ethanol plants can also help to quiet the food versus fuel debate. "No matter where you are on [that] debate," he says, "all of us can get excited about dramatically reducing the cost and the consumption of corn in our existing ethanol plants."

Increasing yields is one way to build the industry with less capital. "There are so many of these ethanol plants that have been built in this country using yesterday's concrete and copper and cement prices," Gross says. "It's prohibitive today with high metal prices and higher construction costs and fuel costs. We really think this is the way with the products— that we have to retool these existing plants to become more efficient and to ultimately make cellulosic biofuels."

With his head in the game, Gross says he has read the signs and as a player, he's ready for whatever curveballs might be thrown at the industry.

"I'm an engineer by training and as you can see, there is a lot of technology involved in this field," Gross says. "I was involved in software businesses after coming out of grad school and a lot of the same attributes that I saw in those industries—which were big, rising-tide industries that lifted all people's boats—are the same here. It's a gargantuan industry. The mandate in the 2007 energy bill calls for 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels [in 2022]. At $1.50 per gallon, that's a $30 billion industry being created out of nothing over the next dozen years—the size of a Google or more—so this is a real emerging, high-growth industry that is also substantial. One of the things that you did see in a lot of the software and Internet companies was companies that didn't have anything substantial. This is real; this is here and now."

Ryan C. Christiansen is the assistant editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach him at [email protected] or (701) 373-8042.