During the past year, corn growers have watched with anticipation as ethanol demand continued to accelerate and at least 73 new plants began construction. Ethanol production could easily reach 11 billion gallons in 2011, requiring 4 billion bushels of corn—nearly twice as much as consumed by ethanol in 2006, according to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA).
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In response to ethanol demand, major seed manufacturers, including Monsanto Company, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and Syngenta, have launched corn varieties intended to increase ethanol yield from every bushel. Today, growers can choose from hundreds of high total fermentable (HTF) hybrids designed for ethanol and bred across all maturities.
"In the industry we are starting to think in terms of gallons per acre instead of bushels per acre,” says Russ Sanders, Pioneer marketing director for quality traits. Average ethanol yield per bushel of corn is 2.8 gal., up from 2.5 gal. several years ago. The result: An acre of 160 bu. corn yields nearly 450 gal. of ethanol.
The road to 1,000 gal. That per acre number may soon be higher if farmers and ethanol plants adopt new technologies to squeeze more ethanol out of corn. Seed industry leaders estimate ethanol hybrids that have higher levels of fermentable starch can yield 3% to 5% more ethanol per bushel than conventional corn.
Coupled with fiber conversion at the ethanol processing level, which yields an additional 10% ethanol per bushel, the industry could see an increase of about 15% more ethanol per bushel, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
"Our goal is 1,000 gal. of ethanol per acre of corn,” Sanders adds. "We think it's achievable with higher-yielding ethanol hybrids, improved cellulosic conversion technologies and ethanol feedstocks beyond grain.”
While most corn growers are aware that seed companies offer ethanol hybrids, there currently is no real demand from processors for these specific hybrids to be grown, says Geoff Cooper, National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) director of commercialization and business development.
"There just aren't many cases we're aware of yet where ethanol processors are paying a premium for these ethanol specific hybrids,” Cooper says.
The main reason is economics—the ethanol yield bump of 3% to 5% that is realized with HTF hybrids is currently not enough to encourage a processor to pay a premium and segregate the corn, Cooper says.
However, there are a few progressive ethanol plants that are looking to the future and considering offering premiums for ethanol hybrids. The major seed companies are also working with ethanol processors to offer incentives to encourage more demand for ethanol hybrids.
For example, 50 dry-mill ethanol plants are collaborating with Monsanto through its Fuel Your Profits program to encourage growers to use Monsanto's Processor Preferred High Fermentable Corn. In exchange, Monsanto offers incentives for farmers to purchase General Motors E85 FlexFuel vehicles and provides financial support for installing E85 pumps in rural areas.
Pioneer is working with more than 70 ethanol plants to use its Industry Select HTF corn hybrids. A key Pioneer strategy involves the placement of grain quality measurement systems that will provide feedback information to growers and processors.
Syngenta seed companies Garst, Golden Harvest and NK Seeds characterize their hybrids' ethanol-producing potential. To determine gallons of ethanol per bushel, they use a testing methodology established by the University of Illinois that mimics the dry-grind ethanol process. Hybrids that consistently produce a higher percentage of ethanol are given the company's ExtraEdge designation.
Still, most ethanol plants aren't demanding high fermentable starch corn yet because they haven't needed to, Cooper adds. During the past several years, ethanol plants have been motivated purely by output. "Ethanol has been a profitable business, and plants haven't seen a need to tweak what they are doing,” he says.
Within the next three years, however, incremental improvements in ethanol yield will likely set one ethanol plant ahead of another.
"We believe processors may consider paying premiums for ethanol-specific hybrids as they look for ways to make their operations more efficient,” Cooper says. "For the sake of their bottom line, farmers should learn about these corn hybrids now. It may pay off in the long run.”
With ethanol at $2 per gallon, each 1% jump in ethanol yield potential is worth about 8¢ per bushel to a farmer.
Ethanol yield analysis. Before ethanol processors can truly offer incentives to growers, both parties need to know how their corn is performing in terms of ethanol yield.
"One of the obstacles in getting processors and farmers to use ethanol hybrids is old grain standards,” Sanders says. "Ideally, we would like one industry-wide yardstick to predict ethanol yield from corn.” Pioneer, as well as other seed companies, is working with NCGA to establish a grain measurement standard for ethanol yield.
Until the yardstick materializes, seed companies are moving forward to help growers and processors better understand ethanol yield from corn.
Pioneer recently announced it is providing FOSS North America, a leading provider of grain analyzers, with proprietary calibration technology that gives estimated ethanol yield in terms of gallons per bushel. Ethanol plants will be able to know ethanol yield for each load of grain a farmer delivers to the plant. In return, farmers will be able to use this information to select specific corn hybrids for maximum ethanol yields.
"If a farmer sells 10 loads of corn, the analyzer will help the plant tell the farmer which loads were down in ethanol yield,” Sanders explains. "Eventually, farmers will be able to show their ethanol plant they can consistently produce grain with higher ethanol yield and hopefully share in the added value.”
Monsanto also provides ethanol plants access to and the use of a near-infrared proprietary measurement tool that helps plant managers and farmers understand which corn hybrids produce more ethanol in the dry-mill process.
Enzyme action. Going beyond simply increasing ethanol production, Syngenta is working on a specialized corn trait that contains an enzyme for improving the efficiency of dry-grind ethanol plants. The enzyme, alpha-amylase, turns starch inside the kernel into sugars that are converted to ethanol.
At an August field day in Milford, Iowa, Brad Wiersum, with the Syngenta Renewable Fuels group, said Syngenta was recently granted Food and Drug Administration approval to conduct further tests on the enzyme-bearing corn. While many tests have shown great promise in the lab, the next step is to find a commercial ethanol plant that is willing to test the corn on a large scale.
The benefit of the in-corn enzyme could cut the number of steps in the ethanol production process, such as less heating or fewer chemicals to change pH levels, Wiersum says. How much of a premium ethanol plants might pay farmers for the amylase corn is yet to be determined since the company is still analyzing the value of potential efficiency gains.
Pioneer also is characterizing grain from different Pioneer hybrids to better understand how various enzymes react with grain from multiple genetic backgrounds in order to optimize ethanol production.
The success in 2007 and the anticipation of what's to come has all those involved in the ethanol process excited about the future. Seed manufacturers are optimizing research and development to offer HTF hybrids so farmers can maximize gallons per acre in order for ethanol plants to optimize output and keep in step with demand.
|Ethanol yield per bushel of corn is currently at
2.8 gal., resulting in one acre of 160 bu. corn
producing 450 gal. of ethanol.
Research shows up to a 7% variation in ethanol yield potential among corn hybrids.
In the dry-grind ethanol industry, the cost of corn makes up more than 60% of total production costs.
Ethanol production should exceed 6 billion gallons in 2007 and use more than 1.5 billion bushels of corn, about 15% of the U.S. crop.