Poet Teams Up With ISU on Corn Starch Study

Iowa State's new research effort with major ethanol firm seeks to improve the efficiency of ethanol manufacturing.

Iowa State University and a major ethanol manufacturer, Poet Energy LLC, are collaborating on a new research project to find starches that will further improve the efficiency of Poet's patent-pending BPX ethanol process.

Poet, formerly known as Broin Companies, is contributing $284,000 over two years. The announcement was made February 20 by ISU and Poet. The ISU researcher heading the Poet-funded project is Jay-Lin Jane.

The BPX process is a raw starch hydrolysis that converts starch to sugar and then ferments the sugar into ethanol without using heat. It is currently used by 20 of Poet's 22 ethanol production facilities. These facilities using the BPX process still use heat in distilling the ethanol, but not in the fermentation step. Benefits include reduced energy costs, increased ethanol yields, increased nutrient quality in the feed coproduct and decreased emissions from the ethanol plants.

Increase ethanol yield, reduce energy use

"Our collaboration with ISU is intended to extend the performance of our BPX process to provide a greater yield of ethanol per bushel of corn without the need for cooking," says Mark Stowers, Poet's vice president of research and development. "By understanding the starch structure and methods of processing starch, we expect to target further increases in ethanol yield, reductions in energy required and improvements in the quality of the distillers grains."

Jane is trying to identify which lines of corn starch work best in the breaking down of starch to glucose. "There are differences between the starches in different lines of corn," she says. "Starches are made differently. We are trying to identify which lines of corn are more easily hydrolyzed by the enzyme and to also better understand the mechanism of hydrolysis of uncooked cornstarch.

"We need to find the right corn lines and understand the mechanism in order to improve the ethanol manufacturing process," she adds. Tests show ethanol producers can get 3 gallons of ethanol per bushel using the right enzyme to break down the starch in this uncooked corn fermentation process, while traditional ethanol production using heat produces about 2.7 gallons per bushel.

Money also coming from Iowa Values Fund

Hydrolyzing the corn starch is actually the breaking down of starch to glucose. The best starches are the ones that break down more easily. Jane has found that starches with certain molecular and granular structures work best.

"Some starches are loosely packed in the granule and can be hydrolyzed easily," she explains. "While others, especially those with different crystalline structures--will be difficult for the enzyme to hydrolyze."

Once the right starches are found, Poet will use that knowledge to further improve its BPX process. Poet is headquartered in Sioux Falls, S.D. Of its 22 production facilities in the United States, seven are in Iowa. The company produces and markets more than 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol annually.

This research collaboration is receiving additional financial support through a grant from the Grow Iowa Values Fund, a state program which seeks to create high quality jobs through business development and expansion in Iowa.

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