New bioprocessing tech moves us from “Food vs Fuels” to “Food, then fuel”

October 20, 2016 |

bd-ts-102116-foodthenfuel-smThe MyFitnessPal Dietician and lifestyle blogger Elle writes:

When it comes down to it, cornstarch doesn’t add any sort of nutritional value to foods other than calories – which most of us get more than enough of anyway. I consider healthy foods to be those that give me good stuff like fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. Simple sugars are important for energy (calories) but there are plenty of truly healthy energy-containing foods that also have lots of good nutrients and fiber.

Today, let’s consider a more compelling way to process a corn plant so that we handle the process with a goal of first extracting all the materials that are useful for food and health, and then fermenting the rest. Namely, the starch.

Sort of like processing a watermelon by cutting out the fruit as a food product and then thinking of something useful to do with the rind. U.S. patent 9,365,799 “Extraction of immobilized oil using mixtures of food grade solvents”, which was granted to SynGest recently, shows a part of that pathway.

The idea was to fractionate (that is, mill) the corn and then separate the oil from the protein. Leaving four distinct product streams.

1.  bran to be used for expertly formulated animal feed.

2. a high quality protein that can also be part of the expert animal feed formulation.

3.  oil that is clean and easy to turn into biodiesel or even real diesel

4. a residue, starch, which could be fermented into a fuel.

The approach is an antidote to food vs fuel, or even food and fuel. It is food, then fuel.

Is it better for animals? Is it better for fuel production?

Jack Oswald, who was SynGest CEO at the time of the patent application, told The Digest, “when we realize that a mixture of 80% corn protein with 20% soy protein creates a “perfect” food by having all of the amino acids necessary to synthesize a protein, this became a compelling way to make fuel and high quality nutritious food.”

What about the dried distillers grains that are already made in the ethanol production process?

Oswald said, “The DDGs that are now being used as animal feed is, in my view, hurting the poor animals and producing a lower quality product.”

What about fuel production, is it cruelly harder, or what?

“For fuel production,” Oswald added, “we believed that fermenting whole grain corn and then concentrating the ethanol was far more complex and time consuming than using more or less pure starch. The oil extraction from all that slop is also more complex and more complex to convert into a high quality fuel.”

The net result. Oswald and SynGest foresaw a much higher economic result with a much higher social result too.

Sadly, SynGest went into some kind of suspended animation, which means that the technology might well be available for licensing or even acquisition. They called it at one time the Cornucopia Biorefinery — and opined that the solution to food vs fuel — or any debate or pricing problem grounded in scarcity (perceived or actual) is abundance.

We’ve seen the impact which abundance has had in the oil markets of late. Flooding the markets with oil and gas has certainly changed the shape of technology and the debate around the future of energy. So there might well be more than a “little something” to the concepts of abundance in the biobased sector as well.

But in any case of complex production, there is always a question not only of the nature of production, but the order of it. Just as it matters in the world of sports who drafts players first.

So, is it food vs fuel. Or, food and fuel? To the observers at SynGest, the problem was never either one of those formulations. The problem was the approach of “fuel, then food.” The cure of which they proposed was a process of “food, then fuel”.

Which elsewhere is known as “the residue markets” and from stover to carbon monoxide to MSW and waste inedible oils, the role of biofuels is generally seen as a societal positive when it is the otherwise low-value, pesky residues that are the target of feedstock acquisition.

If the residue is cornstarch, we might find many animal and human nutrition advocates agreeing that there are better outcomes than injecting more starch into the food system, even if the bran and the protein are seen as components of a healthy feed that should be a focus of the process, not its leftover.

See the SynGest patent.

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