GALVA, Iowa | In 2012, Jim Peterson grew 5,000 acres of a new type of corn designed to produce ethanol more efficiently.
The Washta, Iowa area farmer sold the grain for a premium -- 40 cents per bushel more than the regular market price.
What makes it more valuable?
The variety, called Enogen, is genetically engineered to boost ethanol output and reduce energy costs and water use. The hybrid, developed by Syngenta, contains a gene that promotes an enzyme that speeds the breakdown of starch into sugar, the initial step in converting grain into fuel.
Enogen allows ethanol producers that grind dry corn to forgo buying the anzyme, called alpha amylase, in a liquid form.
"Our client base and shareholders are getting that money rather than sending it to a manufacturer that puts in a tote the same product that we can grow in the field," said Delayne Johnson, general manager of Quad County Corn Processors in Galva, Iowa.
Quad County is the first U.S. ethanol plant to commercially use Enogen, developed by Syngenta, a global seed, herbicide and pesticide manufacturer. The Ida County plant this year started grinding 90 percent traditional corn and 10 percent Enogen.
Another area plant, Plymouth Energy in Merrill, Iowa, signed a commercial deal with Syngenta, set to begin this fall.
A third plant, Siouxland Ethanol near Jackson, Neb., is scheduled to begin a 90-day trial with the manufacturer this spring.
With their profit margins shrinking due to near record corn prices, Enogen offers ethanol producers a chance to improve their efficiency, as well as their bottom line.
While other hybrids have been introduced for ethanol, Enogen is the first designed strictly for production purposes, as well as to make ethanol more efficient, cost effective and better for the environment.
The synthetic enzyme, derived from micro-organisms that live near hot-water vents on the ocean's floor, is inactive while the kernel remain in tact, according to Syngenta.
During the ethanol grinding, the enzyme explodes out of the kernel, breaking down the starch on its own. The enzyme also thins the corn mash and moves it through the fermentation process faster. More ethanol can be produced from the same amount of corn. The cost of heating up and then cooling down the mixture also can be sharply reduced.
"By taking the water out, you can save a lot of energy, said Jack Bernens, Enogen marketing and stakeholder relations manager. "Instead of having more water, you can put more corn in there."
For example, a 100-million gallon plant, using Enogen corn, could save 450,000 gallons of water, 1.3 million KWh of electricity and 244 billion BTUs of natural gas, while also reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 106 million pounds, according to the company.
A three-month trial use of Enogen at the Quad County Corn Processor in 2009 produced encouraging results, Johnson said. The plant started using the biotech corn on a commercial basis in early February.
"It looks like we're going to have improved yields, but I can't say that conclusively today," Johnson said. "Overall, we're starting to see the things that Synegta says the product can do."
Ethanol plants partner with Syngenta to recruit area farmers to grow Endogen. Growers must sign contracts that specify acres to be grown, marketing options, delivery timing and stewardship requirements.
In exchange, they are guaranteed a 40-cent per bushel premium. That put an extra $500,000 in the pockets of farmers who supplied the Quad County plant with Enogen corn last year, Johnson said.
"It really is a big deal," he said. "The farmers that have participated in it are getting significant number of dollars more than those who are growing standard corn."
About 7,000 acres of the hybrid were grown last year within a roughly 30-mile radius of the Galva plant.
Peterson said he plans to plant somewhat more Enogen this spring than last year. He is under contract to supply corn not only for the nearby Quad County plant, but also Plymouth Energy, and for additional Syngenta trials.
In the field, Enogen looks and performs the same as traditional field corn, the veteran farmer said.
"We had regular corn right along beside it, and the yields were no different," he said.
Peterson likened the ethanol variety to other hybrids with traits that help farmers, such as corn resistance to the Roundup herbicide.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011 approved Enogen for commercial uses. The federal agency had previously found the corn was safe to consume.
The approval drew objections from groups worried about cross-pollination in fields. A coalition of food processors fear an accidental mixing of Enogen with regular corn could have an adverse affect on consumer products.
Bernens said Syngenta has taken a number of measures to prevent cross-pollination, including a requirement that border rows of regular corn be planted in Enogen fields.
"The actual amount of Enogen pollen in an adjacent field is very, very low," he said. "The concentration is so low it should not create an issue for any other processing system."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Jack Bernens, Enogen marketing and stakeholder relations manager.