The partnership will exploit Novozymes’s advanced biology - namely its enzymatic and microbial solutions - to unlock additional commercial opportunities in protein production in biorefining.
We spoke to Todd Becker, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Green Plains, to get some background on this development: “There is now a technology whereby you can mechanically isolate the highest value part of the kernel in the traditional ethanol process, to get a product with 50% protein, [compared to conventional DDGS at 30% protein content], leaving the remaining distillers grains somewhat intact. The partnership with Novozymes takes it from there. Together, we apply biological processes to start to increase the level of protein in the product, getting it from 50% to 53%, or 56%, and we are even trying to get it to 60%, to be somewhat [akin] to corn gluten meal.”
With the dismal economics that have challenged the US ethanol industry for the past two years, producers are looking to diversify, to create new value streams. Dried distillers grains, (DDGS) which have a ready if low-value market as cattle and poultry feed, generally track the corn price. Higher margins are the bounty for feed ingredients with boosted protein content.
Today, high protein soybean meal, used widely by the global aquaculture sector, comprises 48% protein content. “That is the market we are chasing,” continued Becker.
The aquaculture industry, he said, is souring on soybean meal from Brazil because of sustainability issues, whereas the Green Plains led process will not involve land use change.
Moreover, Green Plains has the necessary aqua feed expertise on board, given the 50/50 JV called Optimal Aquafeed that it started last December with US company, Optimal Fish Food.
Higher value poultry feeds such as all-vegetable diets are also of interest in terms of this new protein product, he said.
Production throughout the US
The high-quality protein, using the combined Green Plains and Novozymes technology, will be manufactured at a distinct facility, a build costing US$35m, located at Green Plains' production site in Shenandoah, Iowa. A world class aqua laboratory on site can also test feed in a wide range of farmed fish diets, said the CEO.
The new protein product will be commercially available from February 2020, he said.
The plan is to build 13 of these high-quality protein facilities at Green Plains' existing production plants across the US, with Novozymes applying its protein boosting technology at all of those additional factories, he added. “That will take up about US$400-500m of capital but will be a very beneficial venture for our plants. It’s a big margin opportunity for us to take advantage of.”
Green Plains has been a customer of Novozymes for some years, and the parties had long been talking about collaborating on innovation, said the CEO. As part of the agreement, the Danish company will dedicate research and development resources to also look at new molecules and yeasts to test in Green Plains processes to further enhance protein products
The parties are keeping the technology partnership exclusive to start:
“We will make it available to other [ethanol plants] eventually, but we do not want to risk degrading the value of the product. We are not against others utilizing what we discover but it is going to be with people who are like-minded, that manufacture with specific quality practices in mind.
“This is a chance for the ethanol industry to compete in very high value markets, and the ethanol industry has not been known for maintaining value of products, it has been a bit of race to the bottom at times,” commented Becker.
So the US ethanol industry is going to have to think differently to manage this high-end protein market effectively, he stressed.
“It is not like selling distillers grains to a cattle feedlot and competing with all the other commodities. This is a functional protein, highly specialized, requiring a lot of quality assurance, and quality controls. It is not a commodity, it is not about making as much as you can. It is a totally different thought process, and there are a lot of ethanol plants that do not want to do that, having to hire new personnel, train up people, etc."
Through the Optimal JV, Green Plains has fish feed manufacturing and nutrition specialists on staff. “We are already growing fish in our aqua lab. We have experts that understand what customers are looking for, and they are working with customers around the world, to start to redesign diets around this new product.”