Ethanol research looks at soybean

From the Wisconsin State Journal Business Section link
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
NATHAN LEAF

Over the past few years, ethanol plants have sprung up all over Wisconsin and much of the Midwest as the biofuel has been touted as the solution to America’s energy woes. And so far, corn has been the undisputed king.

C5-6 Technologies of Middleton is working to change the landscape of the biofuel industry. It plans to do this with newly developed enzymes – proteins that catalyze chemical reactions – that will not only make production of corn ethanol more efficient but also expand the raw materials, or feedstocks, that can be used to create the fuel.

With five employees and $2.2 million in grants and loans, C5- 6 was spun off last August from Lucigen, the biotech firm it still shares office and lab space with at 2120 W. Greenview Drive on Middleton’s west side.

John Biondi, Lucigen’s former chief operating officer, was named president of the new company, which is named for the five and six carbon sugars formed by its enzymes.

Biondi said the enzymes will extract ethanol from parts of corn and other biomass that have to this point been commercially impossible to use in ethanol production. This will extend to cellulosic ethanol production, using materials such as switchgrass and wood chips.

But the company’s most intriguing feedstock target is a plant already very familiar to Wisconsin farmers and the biofuel industry – the soybean.

While it has never been used to produce ethanol, soybean oil has been the dominant source for biodiesel production. But C5-6 believes soybean meal, produced during soybean crushing along with the oil, will make for an excellent ethanol feedstock.

Not only will the enzymes break down the meal into ethanol, but they will create a valuable soy protein concentrate that can be used as a petroleum substitute in products such as adhesives and plastics.

“We could have a process that is by far the most profitable ethanol process out there,” Biondi said.

This new use for soybeans has received the backing of Bob Karls, executive director of the Wisconsin Soybean Association.

“This technology can help soybean farmers, make our country safer and our air cleaner with more ethanol fuel,” Karls said. “This is a win- win for consumers and farmers.”

Brett Hulsey, president of Better Environmental Solutions and a Dane County Board member, has been hired as a consultant by C5-6. He said this new technology will have a positive environmental impact. “This could dramatically increase ethanol production without requiring new acres of corn to be planted,” Hulsey said. “It’s good to have crop diversity.”

Expanding beyond corn for ethanol production is a strategy that Biondi said is necessary for the industry to be sustainable.

“We have to have multiple feedstocks in order to get to the level of biofuels production that we’re going to need in order to make a significant difference in oil consumption,” Biondi said. “We can’t do it on corn (alone). However, corn is where the industry is. Corn is the starting point. And we have to have a solid ethanol industry in order to go forward from there.”

For that reason, C5-6’s first commercial enzymes will be used in corn ethanol production. Tests of some of those enzymes were run last year at Ace Ethanol in Stanley, about 90 miles north of La Crosse. Bob Sather, chairman of Ace, said C5-6’s technology will have a far-reaching impact on the ethanol industry.

“It’s going to make (ethanol) more competitive, less costly to make and more profitable,” he said. “We’ve been improving incrementally to make the plants more efficient. But they’ve been smaller scale. This is a big leap forward.”

Sather said the increased efficiency could mean extra revenue of about $7 million per year to plants such as Ace, which is producing about 42 million gallons of corn ethanol per year.

With the company now searching for $5 million in venture capital, Biondi expects the first enzymes for corn ethanol production to begin generating revenue by 2008 and the enzymes for soybean ethanol production doing the same in about 18 months. Enzymes for producing ethanol from cellulosic materials are expected to be in the testing phase within two years, Biondi said.

“You can make ethanol out of pretty much anything,” he said. “The question is, can you make it at the right price?”

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