Colwich Amid global debate over biofuels at a time of high food prices, the nation's leading designer of ethanol plants plans to unveil on Monday a new technology that would allow processors of corn-based ethanol to produce food for human consumption as well as fuel.
ICM Inc. will introduce to its customers its advanced food and fuel technology, a "dry corn fractionation" process that allows the use of the entire corn kernel. The plan calls for the construction of separate facilities at ethanol plants where the dry corn kernel can be separated into its components - endosperm, germ and bran - before it is contaminated in the later ethanol distillation process.
The new technology, at least on paper, could substantially increase revenues for ethanol plants while using no more corn than the facilities already need for ethanol. Instead of having so much leftover distilling grain good only for livestock feed, the new process will first separate out the corn germ for human food.
Today, less than 5 percent of the corn used by ethanol plants is also used for human food in a few wet milling ethanol plants. But most of the nation's ethanol plants are dry mills where corn is ground up and distilled traditionally with the byproducts going to animal feed.
"Producing food that can go directly for human consumption would be a very unique development right now," said Ron Lamberty, vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, an industry trade group.
Lamberty said the technology proposed by ICM would be a new process for dry mills and would impact many ethanol plants in the United States.
David Vander Griend, chief executive officer of ICM, said his company's goal has been to take distiller's grain, which has low value in the feed market, and figure out a way to give it high value.
"It has been a passion of mine," Vander Griend said. "We were on this trail. We kind of accelerated a little last year because of a lot of what I would say negative press we were getting. It seemed like we had better get after this and start moving in this direction a little quicker."
From the corn germ, researchers at ICM have learned how to extract a tasteless, powdery protein comparable to the albumin in egg whites that can be used to add foaming texture to foods such as ice cream, whipped cream, pudding and custards.
The process makes close to a pound of this protein out of a bushel of corn. That corn-based protein product has a potential market value of between $2 and $6 a pound, based on egg albumin prices, said Scott Kohl, an ICM researcher.
Other food products from the corn germ now in development at ICM include a food-grade corn oil and a single-cell protein comparable to soybean meal that can be used as feed for poultry and swine, he said.
After the fractionation process, about 9.3 percent of the kernel is germ material with another 6.7 percent bran. The remaining 84 percent is the endosperm, or starch, that is used to make ethanol, according to the company.
"All this work doesn't use more corn," Vander Griend said.
The only part of the corn kernel processed for fuel would be the endosperm. The company contends that removing the other components before distilling it would not affect the quantity of ethanol produced, although the amount of the byproduct distiller's grain left over for livestock feed would be less.
The corn bran could be used as cellulosic fuel to reduce natural gas energy costs at the ethanol plant.
Its pilot plant, LifeLine Foods, is based in St. Joseph, Mo., where implementation of the new technology is under way. The oil extraction process is expected to come online by the end of this year and the food protein process should be online by next spring, Vander Griend said.
The St. Joseph plant, which has been using a corn fractionation process since October, now retains a portion of every corn kernel as human food by making corn meal and a snack meal that is used as an ingredient in the snack food industry.
On Monday, ICM will introduce the technology to about 100 of its customers. Its goal is to get at least five plants to sign up for an onsite three-year phased implementation of the "total kernel optimization" process at their ethanol plants. The mill would be a separate building onsite at their current ethanol facility.
ICM's food and fuel technology for a typical ethanol plant comes with a hefty price tag of almost $200 million - but the company contends the investment will ultimately pay for itself within two years after full production begins with the increased revenues from all the new food products.
Ethanol plants that today use corn as their feedstock now get three-fourths of their income from the sale of ethanol, Vander Griend said. A quarter of their income comes from selling distiller's grain for livestock feed.