Syngenta corn increases ethanol yield, reduces natural gas use

By Holly Jessen | February 14, 2011

Production tests of Syngenta Seeds Inc.’s new amylase corn at Western Plains Energy LLC showed an 8 percent increase in ethanol production and an 8 percent decrease in natural gas use. It’s enough to make Steve McNinch, general manager and CEO of the Oakley, Kan., plant, never want to go back to a liquid amylase enzyme ever again. “What that means for us is more profits, with less expense,” he said. “And there are no ‘gotchas’ for the plant either.”

Syngenta announced Feb. 11 that it had received full deregulation from the USDA for corn amylase Event 3272, which will be sold under the Enogen seed brand. The corn--which has been a decade or so in the making--has an alpha-amylase enzyme engineered right into it, said Jack Bernens, head of technology acceptance for Syngenta Seeds. It’s the first genetically modified corn seed tailor made for the ethanol industry.

It has some big efficiency and environmental benefits for the ethanol industry. A 100 MMgy ethanol plant using Enogen corn can save 450,000 gallons of water, 1.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity and 244 billion British thermal units of natural gas annually, according to a 2008 study by John Urbanchuk, who is currently technical director for Cardno Entrix. That amount of power is enough to heat several thousand homes while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions by 102 million pounds.

Full deregulation basically means the company has USDA approval to sell the corn with no conditions, Bernens said. In addition, the corn has had Food and Drug Administration approval since 2007. “It is perfectly as safe for food and feed as conventional corn,” he told EPM. The only industry for which the amylase corn could cause a functionality concern is in some industrial and food processes.

Still, Syngenta plans to only allow contracted corn growers with an ethanol plant in their area to plant Enogen seed corn. The company will use a tightly managed track-and-trace system, grower training and auditing to ensure that the corn will be used in the industry for which it will provide the most benefit. “It’s a high value crop and it only has additional value if it goes into the dry grind ethanol industry,” he said. “… It can be fed to cattle, it could be used for other purposes, but it doesn’t really add value there.”

The company is also working to establish an advisory council, which will be made up of stakeholders such as corn growers, food processors and the USDA. The objective, Bernens said, is to get input from those along the value chain while providing assurance that the product will work as promised. The company also plans to work with ethanol plants to test the grain at additional facilities, giving those plants a chance to see how it works and hopefully realize the potential benefits of amylase-engineered corn.

Because it’s already rather late in the year few acres of the amylase corn will likely be planted in the 2011 season, Bernens said. That’s likely to ramp up in 2012 but not as quickly as other corn traits are typically used and accepted. “It’s a much slower gear up from a commercial perspective,” he said.