What technologies and products will propel Minnesota value-added agriculture in the next decade?

AURI recently released two reports that outline eight top prospects for corn and soybeans, drawn from more than 200 possibilities. Prepared by Memphis-based Informa Economics, the reports will help farmers and ag processors grasp the economic potential of advancing technology, says Dennis Timmerman, AURI project director.

There are enormous opportunities for adding worth to Minnesota corn and soybeans, Timmerman says. Processing innovations could boost ethanol and biodiesel profitability. Green chemical technology could turn biofuel plants into diversified biorefineries. New seed traits may help farmers capture specialty markets. Down the road, second-generation biofuels and chemicals could open up new markets for corn residue and non-food crops.

Plant-based plastics have the potential to add even more value to crops than transportation fuels, Timmerman says. “Plastic production consumes only a fraction of our petroleum supply but is nearly equal in value to gasoline.”

Minnesota corn growers are especially interested in ways to improve corn ethanol efficiency, says Riley Maanum, Minnesota Corn Growers Association research and project manager. The industry has struggled to be profitable as corn prices rose and fuel demand fell.

Maanum sees promise in corn stillage digestion, which “could cut energy costs and conserve water. There’s solid research on this, so it’s not too far off.” Corn fractionation — splitting the kernel into its components before fermentation — is another top opportunity “to get more value out of every corn kernel,” Maanum says.

On the soybean side, new value-added varieties hold great promise for Minnesota growers, says Mike Youngerberg, Minnesota Soybean Growers field services director. For instance, high-stability-oil soybeans, now in the breeding pipeline, would have many industrial applications. “Even the biodiesel industry is waiting for high-stability oils to diversify their product mix.”

Specialty livestock feed is another top soybean opportunity, Youngerberg says. One emerging sector is aquaculture, which is poised to expand rapidly “as the world looks at feeding more people.” Minnesota soybean growers are funding both research and marketing efforts aimed at supplying specialty soymeal to poultry, baby pig and fish growers, he says.

Challenges ahead

AURI is already working on many of the top opportunities identified in the reports, Timmerman says. But the development challenges are daunting, and success is not assured.

Some ideas, such as cellulosic ethanol, will require scientific or engineering breakthroughs, says Informa economist Scott Richman, lead author of the reports. “For others, it’s a question of cost or performance relative to alternatives, such as petroleum,” he says. “Often, they are related; the technology has to advance to the point where it is cost competitive.”

There are other hurdles, too, he notes. Uncertain government policies, gyrating crop and oil prices, tight credit and the global economic downturn discourage investments in value-added corn and soybean ventures. Beyond that, he adds, many bio-based products could be made from a number of different plants, so corn and soybeans will have to compete with alternative feedstocks.

Yet, those challenges make it imperative to “continue to assess our future opportunities,” Youngerberg says. “The world is changing and looking forward is what we’re all about.”

The search for petroleum alternatives is being driven by climate change fears, the desire for energy independence and consumer demand for renewable products, says Informa economist Scott Richman, lead author of the AURI reports.

VALUE-ADDED VARIETIES

Packing in more oil

New high-oil soybean varieties will help farmers and soybean processors meet rising demand for both food and biofuels.

Most of the new industrial applications for soybeans use the oil portion of the seed, rather than the protein. Breeding work is underway to increase soybean oil content from about 19 percent to 25 percent, without sacrificing yield. The first high-oil varieties will be available soon and could offer farmers the chance to earn an oil premium. One big advantage of high oil beans: Identity-preserved handling won’t be needed, although grain elevators would have to start measuring oil content.

Fresher for longer

With the phase-out of trans fats, oil from new bean varieties being developed stays fresh without hydrogenation and holds up under high-heat deep frying.

Trans fats, which now must be listed on nutritional labels, form when oils are partially hydrogenated for shelf stability. Plant breeders are developing soybeans rich in monosaturated fatty acids, or oleic oil, and low in polyunsaturated fatty acids, or linolenic oil. Mid- and high-oleic soybean oils have no trans fats, a longer shelf life, and many food and industrial applications.

Growers could earn significant premiums from these bean varieties. Like other specialty crops, high-stability-oil soybeans will require identity-preserved handling.

SPECIALTY FEED

Fish food

Fish rations may soon contain a specially-processed soybean meal, offering feed producers a new aquaculture market.

The global aquaculture industry has been growing about 6 percent a year since the late 1990s, outpacing fishmeal production. Commercial fish farmers are looking for alternative protein sources.

Traditional soybean meal doesn’t perform well in all fish diets, particularly carnivorous species’ rations. But removing some of the meal’s carbohydrates raises its protein content and improves its nutritional value. Soy protein concentrate is about 65 percent protein, compared to about 48 percent for conventional soymeal.

The cost of making soy protein concentrate is still too high to compete with fishmeal, but cheaper methods are being developed as fishmeal supplies are tight. Aquaculture demand for cost-competitive soy protein could top 1 million tons a year, three times current production.

GREEN CHEMICALS

Eco-friendly plastic

Soybean oil can make plastic “greener.”

As demand grows for environmentally-friendly products, manufacturers are turning to soy-based polyols for furniture, bedding, flooring and many other consumer goods. Polyol, a component of polyurethane plastic, represent a 3.4 billion-pound market in North America alone. In addition to being renewable, soy polyols generate fewer harmful greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds than oil-based polyols.

Renewable resin

Glycerin, a biodiesel coproduct, could slash the environmental costs of manufacturing a widely-used epoxy resin.

Epichlorohydrin, used in electronics, auto, aerospace and wind-turbine manufacturing, is derived from propylene, a petroleum product. New glycerin-to-epichlorohydrin technology uses 30 percent less energy than the oil-based process, and generates a fraction of the wastewater, salts and unwanted chlorinated organic compounds. Demand for epichlorohydrin outpaces current production, offering significant growth potential, plus a new use for glycerin.

Green glue

The use of soy-based wood adhesives, first developed in the 1920s, is poised to grow 15-fold.

Today, formaldehyde-based wood adhesives dominate the 3.75 billion pound U.S. market. But rising environmental and health fears over using these glues in wood composites is stimulating strong interest in less-toxic glues made from soybean flour. Development is also spurred by LEED building standards and California regulations limiting formaldehyde emissions from interior wood panels.

The United Soybean Board estimates that soy wood adhesive’s annual use could rise from the current 50 million pounds to more than 700 million within a few years.

RENEWABLE FUELS

Better biofuel function

A soy-diesel production alternative could cut biofuel distribution costs and improve performance in cold temperatures.

Today’s biodiesel is made by transesterification, a chemical process. By contrast, “renewable” diesel is made by hydroprocessing, a refining method that yields fuel nearly identical to petroleum diesel. Renewable diesel could be refined into low-temperature transportation fuels such as jet fuel, handled through the existing diesel pipeline and storage systems, and used in unmodified diesel engines.

One drawback: renewable biodiesel co-processed with petroleum is not eligible for the full biodiesel federal subsidy.

Leaner processing

Making biodiesel through an enzyme process, instead of a chemical process, could improve manufacturing efficiency and make use of low-quality fats and oils.

Enzymatic transesterification consumes less water and energy and can take advantage of cheaper feedstocks. That could cut biodiesel manufacturing costs. The enzymes are still too expensive for commercial use, but the process could become competitive within a few years.

Source: “A Study Assessing the Opportunities and Potential of Soybean Based Products and Technologies,” Informa Economics for AURI, August 2009. Find the full report, with more than 100 potential value-added ideas for soybeans, at www.auri.org.

IMPROVED CORN ETHANOL

Methane from stillage

Corn-ethanol plants could use methane digestion to generate fuel from corn stillage, an ethanol byproduct.

Renewable methane, a natural-gas substitute, could be burned to power the plant, cutting fossil fuel use by up to two-thirds. Thin-stillage digestion would also conserve water and curb greenhouse gas emissions, making corn ethanol “greener,” and would generate renewable fertilizer.

Anaerobic digestion is widely used in ag processing, but not in ethanol production because of high-capital costs. The technology is now being demonstrated at several ethanol facilities, including POET’s cellulosic ethanol pilot plant in Scotland, S.D.

Better separation

New technology could cut ethanol distillation’s energy needs by almost half, lowering costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Most ethanol plants use steam distillation and molecular sieves to separate ethanol and water vapor after fermentation. It’s an expensive, energy-intensive process. Several alternatives are being developed including vacuum stripping, gas stripping and membrane separation. Some are expected to be commercialized within five years.

More from every kernel

Separating a corn kernel into its components — hull, germ and starch — before fermentation could boost ethanol yields, cut costs and create additional coproducts.

Ethanol dry mills grind up the entire kernel, sending non-fermentable corn oil, protein and fiber to the distillery along with starch. These components remain after starch is converted to alcohol and are usually dried and sold as distillers grains, a livestock feed.

In front-end corn fractionation, only starch is sent to the fermenter. The hull and germ are processed for crude corn oil, corn-germ meal and other products that, together, have more value than dried distillers grains. Fractionation, which is nearing commercialization, could potentially raise net ethanol revenues by 9 to 28 cents per gallon.

Specialty corn protein

A valuable corn protein could improve corn-ethanol economics.

Zein, a food-grade protein, is used in many consumer, medical and industrial products including grease- and water-proof coatings for pharmaceutical tablets, candies, nuts, paper products and textiles.

Usually zein is extracted from corn-gluten meal, a wet-milling coproduct. But high processing costs limit its use. Several technology companies are developing cheaper ways to extract zein from fractionated corn or ethanol coproducts, such as distillers grains.

SECOND-GENERATION BIOFUELS

Another corny fuel

Biobutanol could become a versatile corn-based transportation fuel or a raw material for green plastics.

Butanol, an industrial alcohol, is now derived from petroleum and used primarily as a chemical solvent. Cost-competitive technologies are being developed to brew “biobutanol” through corn-sugar fermentation, much like ethanol. In fact, conventional corn ethanol plants could be refitted to produce butanol.

Biobutanol blends better with gasoline than ethanol, generates fewer harmful emissions, and is a more valuable feedstock for green chemicals and bio-based plastics. It also has a higher energy content than ethanol and could be moved through pipelines.

Several U.S. companies, including Denver–based Gevo, are planning to convert existing ethanol plants to biobutanol production.

Efficient cellulosic ethanol

The race is on to find efficient ways to turn crop residues, such as corn cobs and other cellulosic biomass, into competitively-priced ethanol.

Significant research is being invested in two main cellulosic technologies — biochemical and thermochemical. Neither is commercially viable yet, but biochemical conversion has advantages over thermal. It offers several value-added coproducts besides ethanol and is likely to be economical on a smaller scale, reducing feedstock transportation costs.

Research is focusing on three main production problems: pretreating biomass, which is expensive, separating sugars from cellulose, and fermenting sugar efficiently.

VALUE-ADDED CHEMICALS

Better chemistry through corn

Two corn-based chemicals could replace many commonly-used chemicals now made from oil and natural gas.

Succinic acid and 3-hydroxypropionic acid, or 3-HPA, are used to produce solvents, plastics, adhesives, coatings, resins, fibers, lubricants and other products. Fermentation techniques are being developed to convert renewable plant sugars to the chemicals, which are listed by the U.S. Department of Energy as plant-based chemicals with the greatest market potential.

Succinic acid is used in plastics and elastic fibers. At the right price, bio-based succinic acid markets could top $1 billion a year — and up to $7 billion according to some estimates. Also, because corn-based succinic acid production consumes carbon dioxide, a global-warming gas, the manufacturing process could be carbon negative.

Likewise, the market potential for a cost-competitive, bio-based 3-HPA is huge. One of its most promising uses is in manufacturing acrylic acid, which is used to make absorbents for diapers, personal care products and “soaker pads” in packaged meats and poultry.

Making 3-HPA from corn sugars is still in the early research phase. Bio-based succinic acid development is more advanced, with commercialization expected in five years or less.

Succinic Acid Biorefinery ConceptEthanol plants could one day become “biorefineries,” producing transportation fuels and an array of high-value chemicals, such as succinic acid.

Source: “A Study Assessing the Opportunities and Potential of Corn Based Products and Technologies,” Informa Economics for AURI, August 2009. Find the full report, with more than 100 value-added ideas for corn, at www.auri.org.