Tailor-made for Ethanol

Syngenta amylase corn gets full approval
By Holly Jessen | March 10, 2011

It’s something the ethanol industry has been asking about for awhile now—corn that’s genetically modified to produce more ethanol without the use of enzymes. In February, Syngenta Seeds Inc. came through with corn amylase Event 3272, which will be sold under the Enogen seed brand.

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 says. “And there are no ‘gotchas’ for the plant either.”

Syngenta announced Feb. 11 that it had received full deregulation for the amylase corn product. The corn variety—which has been a decade or so in the making—has an alpha-amylase enzyme engineered right into it, says Jack Bernens, head of technology acceptance for Syngenta Seeds. It’s the first genetically modified corn seed tailor-made for the ethanol industry.

“Enogen corn is a breakthrough product that provides ethanol producers a proven means to create more value per gallon while offering  targeted corn growers an opportunity to cultivate a premium specialty crop in a contracted, closed production system,” says David Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds. “Also, Enogen corn can substantially reduce the energy and water consumed and the carbon emissions associated with ethanol production.”

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 Btu of natural gas annually, according to a 2008 study by John Urbanchuk, 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 says. In addition, the variety has had Food and Drug Administration approval since 2007. “It is perfectly as safe for food and feed as conventional corn,” he tells EPM. The only areas for which the amylase corn could cause a functionality concern are 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 says. “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 including corn growers, food processors and the USDA. The objective, Bernens says, 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 the potential benefits of amylase-engineered corn.

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

—Holly Jessen