Prime Enzymes

Wisconsin-based biotech firm
seeks to extract more ethanol from crops

By Karl Ohm

Unlocking and converting starch into simpler sugars so yeast can ferment them into ethanol are all in a day’s work for microscopic enzymes, such as amylase.

But as tiny as they may be, enzymes other than amylase may quickly become the heavyweight champions in producing ethanol more efficiently and in greater quantities from corn and other crops.

C5-6 Technologies John Biondi (left), president, and Phillip Brumm, chief scientific officer, of C5-6 Technologies, Middleton, WI.
Photo: Karl Ohm

“There’s no question that enzymes will help unleash more of the bound-up energy potential of the agricultural and biomass feedstocks that can be converted into fuel,” says John Biondi, president of C5-6 Technologies, of Middleton, WI.

“Our firm is already testing two sets of enzymes that will significantly boost the ethanol yield from a bushel of corn.”

“Presently, about 15% of the corn material is left unconverted due to the limitations of existing amylases,“ explains Biondi. “The enzymes that we’ve isolated have the capability to convert much of that 15% into sugars which can then be turned into alcohol by yeast fermentation.”

Based on laboratory data, C5-6’s enzymes could boost the per bushel ethanol yield by 10 to 13%.

That is significant, considering that about 2.7 gallons of ethanol can now be produced from a bushel of corn compared to 2.4 gallons back in 1984. Much of that increase resulted from better milling and fermentation methods combined with higher starch content in select corn varieties.

Lab trials of one group of these enzymes will begin in January at ethanol plants in Wisconsin. 

Once the enzymes, which are being called Cornbuster™ 1 & 2, have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pilot trials will be conducted in early 2007 at ethanol plants in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, according to Dr. Phillip Brumm, Chief Scientific Officer, of C5-6 Technologies.

Editor’s Note: C5-6 Technologies is a spin-off company of Lucigen Corp., of Middleton, WI. While the firms don’t mass-produce enzymes, Lucigen is known for its versatile and efficient enzyme cloning technology used in medical diagnostics and the pharmaceutical industry.

Ethanol from soybean meal

Besides its work in corn ethanol, C5-6 Technologies and its parent firm, Lucigen Corp., were also recently awarded a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to expand its current research in isolating enzymes and developing the process for converting soybean meal carbohydrate into ethanol.

Based on last year’s soybean harvest, an additional two billion gallons of ethanol could be produced this way in the U.S., according to C5-6 Technologies.

“We’re already pretty confident that our technology will provide the right enzymes to do the job well,” says Brumm. “However, we are still looking for partner companies on the commodity and technology sides to help us source the soy and build the plants that will accomplish what we envision.”

Brumm says that after producing the ethanol, the remaining protein will be a 90 to 95% concentrate. “In addition to livestock feed, some of this concentrated protein, if handled correctly, could also be channeled off and sold to the higher value food grade market,” he says.

Note: Reprinted with permission from The Corn and Soybean Digest magazine, Minneapolis, MN.