Archive for May, 2010

U of M’s Corn Gene-ious Ron Phillips retires

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

University of Minnesota Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Genomics Ron Phillips will surely be regarded by history as a father of agricultural biotechnology. He retires this month, capping his career with the award of the prestigious Medal of Science, bestowed by one of the world’s oldest, most revered universities, the University of Bologna, Italy.

His work over a storied four-decade academic career has been integral to the development of knowledge of the corn genome. In particular his work and the work of colleagues and students has led to the discovery of the quantitative trait locus in the corn gene that governs flowering time.  Through this discovery, it has been possible to create inbreds with flowering timed to maximize productivity based on where the plant is being grown.

At the level of pure science across the spectrum of genetics, this work has led to “a better understanding of the nature of quantitative trait variation,” according to a paper published by colleagues and former students of Phillips in the journal Maytica.

Phillips pioneered techniques for the reproduction of living corn plants from cell tissue, which has provided a foundation for the use of genetics to shape the characteristics of the corn plant.

The University of Minnesota celebrates Prof. Phillips illustrious career with a daylong symposium on May 24 that will include more than 20 speakers who will discuss the latest projects in the genetics of cereal plants.  The day will conclude with a celebratory dinner.

(more information about the Phillips retirement events)

“As everybody knows, the biggest crop in the world is called wheat, but the crop that will produce way beyond any other, well into the future is corn because of its potential uses in the emerging carbohydrate economy,” said Gerald Tumbleson, a corn farmer in Sherburn, Minnesota, and a huge fan of Prof. Phillips. Tumbleson said of Phillips, “For him to take his life and devote it to understanding corn’s potential is so important.”

Of course, by volume, and economic value, corn is the United States’ most important cereal crop. Phillips believes genetic science holds great potential for the most serious questions facing humanity. The Cargill Microbial and Plant Genomics Center at the University of Minnesota has provided an incredibly rich, synergistic environment for that forward development of genetic science.

“(The Medal of Science) is a distinct honor recognizing our efforts in ‘Mobilizing Science for Agriculture,’ the title of my acceptance speech,” Phillips said. “The University of Minnesota provides excellent opportunities to discover innovative approaches to help alleviate the hunger of one billion malnourished people in today’s world, a problem that does not have to exist.”

Phillips has also won the Wolf Prize in Agriculture presented at the Knesset in Israel and has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1991. In 2010 he was awarded the Siehl Prize, for his contribution to greater knowledge in agriculture.

“I put him up there with Borlaug,” said Tumbleson. “To my mind, he is a candidate for the Nobel prize.”

His colleagues and students conclude the Maytica paper by enumerating some of Phillips’ “philosophies and attributes”:

1. Treasure your exceptions. Dr. Phillips often repeated this phrase originally attributed to the geneticist William Bateson. One of Dr. Phillips talents is to identify and pursue unexpected findings, as opposed to simply interpret the designed outcome from an experiment. His attention to detail provided confidence in the experimental results, and unexpected exceptions such as weak oat plants containing corn chromosomes – led to new lines of research.

2. Give your students your best ideas. Dr. Phillips is a selfless and patient supporter of his students. This selfless attitude has contributed to the successful careers of people that he mentored and the advancement of his scientific thought. His approach is to provide students with ideas and resources, and then to allow them substantial independence in the design of their experiments and the extent of their experimentation. This approach has produced students that have the capacity to operate independently and productively as they move into their own research positions.

3. Conduct research with integrity and scientific rigor. Dr. Phillips has exemplified throughout his career the highest standards of integrity and scientific rigor and has passed those values on to those he has mentored.

4. Facilitate the growth of your students in the scientific community. Dr. Phillips was outstanding in promoting the people that he mentored, both during their time in his lab as well as throughout their careers.

5. Collegial relationships built on openness and honesty are synergistic in advancing scientific excellence. Dr. Phillips valued long-term colleagues including Burle Gengenbach, Richard Kowles, Howard Rines, and Irwin Rubenstein because of the open and deep scientific discussions that they had regarding research. His approach is to encourage students and colleagues to challenge each other’s hypotheses, data, and interpretations in a positive and productive environment, ensuring that published results withstand scrutiny and are accurately interpreted.

6. A successful scientist can also have a successful family. Dr. Phillips demonstrated that success in your career does not require sacrificing your family. He is a role model in this regard for students, other faculty, and those with whom he interacted, and proved that a highly productive career does not entail working seven days a week. All those associated with him remember fondly his wife, Judy, and have heard him speak with pride about his children, Angie and Brett.

Ethanol producers sued over corn oil technology

Moves to Consolidate All Pending Infringement Matters To One Court for Pretrial Proceedings

(full article)

GreenShift Corporation (GERS 0.00, 0.00, 0.00%) today announced that its wholly-owned subsidiary, GS CleanTech Corporation (“GreenShift”), has commenced legal action against eleven additional ethanol producers for infringing on GreenShift’s U.S. patent covering corn oil extraction technology.

The new complaints allege that the named producers are infringing GreenShift’s U.S. Patent No. 7,601,858, titled “Method of Processing Ethanol Byproducts and Related Subsystems” (the ‘858 Patent), which covers processes for recovering corn oil from whole stillage, a precursor to the distillers grain co-product of corn ethanol production.

The following is a list of all current ethanol producers alleged to infringe the ‘858 Patent and now named in GreenShift’s pending infringement suits:

Ethanol Producer                                Location

1. Big River Resources West Burlington, LLC     West Burlington, Illinois

2. Center Ethanol, LLC                          Sauget, Illinois

3. Lincolnland Agri-Energy, LLC                 Palestine, Illinois

4. Cardinal Ethanol, LLC                        Union City, Indiana

5. Iroquois BioEnergy Company, LLC              Rensselear, Indiana

6. Amaizing Energy, LLC                         Denison, Iowa

7. Big River Resources Galva, LLC               Galva, Iowa

8. Lincolnway Energy, LLC                       Nevada, Iowa

9. Al-Corn Clean Fuel, LLC                      Claremont, Minnesota

10. Bushmills Ethanol, Inc.                     Atwater, Minnesota

11. Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co., LLLP           Benson, Minnesota

12. Heartland Corn Products, LLC                Winthrop, Minnesota

13. Blue Flint Ethanol, LLC                     Underwood, North Dakota

14. ACE Ethanol, LLC                            Stanley, Wisconsin

15. United Wisconsin Grain Producers, LLC       Friesland, Wisconsin

Also named in GreenShift’s pending infringement suits are ICM, Inc., of Colwich, Kansas and GEA Westfalia Separator, Inc., of Northvale, New Jersey based on each company’s alleged infringement via the sale of equipment for use in a manner that infringes the ‘858 Patent.

Our Take:
We have no opinion about the merit of this lawsuit, but merely post it as a sign, if an indirect one, of the technological sophistication of today’s ethanol industry.


We posted the list of companies named in the suit as another indication of the broad reach of the ethanol industry. Plants across the Midwestern U.S. employ state-of-the-art technology to capture as much value as possible from the grain they use as feedstock.


Ethanol plants not only provide clean, renewable transportation fuel, but turn out a number of high quality food and feed products as well—each plant developing its own mix of products based on the ready availability of markets to consume those goods—everything from food-grade corn oil, carbonation for bottled softdrinks, high quality alcohol beverages, to the high-protein animal feed called distillers grains.

The success of corn-based ethanol has allowed each plant to pursue its own path to diversification in value-added agriculture. And through that success, these companies have brought high paying jobs and revenue to rural Minnesota—the latest estimate is $6 billion in annual economic impact in our state alone.

CBOT Corn Review: Futures End Up; China Demand Hopes Buoy Market

CHICAGO (Dow Jones)–Chicago Board of Trade corn futures ended higher last Friday, advancing for the third consecutive day on optimistic outlooks for additional Chinese demand.

China’s recent purchase of U.S. corn still has everyone’s ears perked up on the outlook for additional buying following Wednesday’s confirmed sales on talk of strong feed demand in the Asian nation, said Bill Rafferty, analyst with Penson GHCO in New York.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed Wednesday that China bought 115,000 metric tons of U.S. corn, its largest purchase since the 1998-99 marketing year. The new sale sparked chatter of China needing to buy an additional 500,000 tons and that helped support nearby prices, he said.

Traders added risk premium to the market because they expect China to buy corn as well as take some precautions on the uncertainties of a long growing season.

“China needed corn this year to meet feed needs to meet their mandate to increase hog and chicken populations for meat protein,” said P.F.G. Best analyst Tim Hannagan. “Their mandate to sharply increase ethanol production from corn and to fill their strategic corn reserve to 40% of domestic usage is increasing their needs as well,” Hannagan added.

Meanwhile, concerns about weekend rains slowing an active Midwest planting pace coupled with weakness in the U.S. dollar and gains in crude oil added psychological support.

A weaker U.S. dollar is often seen as supportive, because of perceptions that it makes U.S. grain and oilseeds less expensive to foreign buyers.

Read the full article

Our Take:
Corn’s three-legged stool—domestic feed markets, ethanol and exports–will help farmers who faced a drastic drop in income in 2009. It is gratifying to see corn prices grow modestly despite the distinct possibility of a bumper corn crop this year.


But a strong corn market makes the acceptance of the E15 waiver application that much more important to ethanol producers who must pay those grain prices.


The U.S. ethanol industry has responded to America’s energy needs, and its growing desire to supply them domestically. But without the E15 waiver and the potential to grow the market by 50 percent, the cart will once again be in front of the horse.


Renewable Fuels Association  reports the latest production and demand stats: while ethanol demand hit another record in February—795,000 barrels per day (up 200,000 barrels from February 2009), supply remained well ahead, at 833,000 barrels per day. The industry now has a 22-plus day reserve. This fact will be a key element in moderating gasoline pump prices as we head into the Memorial Day weekend, when demand typically surges.


But we don’t want a healthy ethanol reserve to turn into a glut. The farmers and ethanol makers have stepped up and created a growing source of domestic energy. Now it’s the federal government’s turn to acknowledge that fact and create market space for this fuel: it will mean cleaner air and less carbon in the atmosphere, more dollars retained by the U.S. economy, more jobs for Americans, and fewer funds into the coffers of nations that are actively working to harm our citizens.


It is indeed possible that the would-be Times Square car bomber received at least some of his funds from money we pay for Middle Eastern oil. Should we continue to ramp up our spending on foreign oil and give them the chance to succeed next time?


New York State and Growth Energy collaborate to bring more E85 locations to the Empire State


(Published by Detroit Alternative Energy Examiner, written by James Pratt)

While American-made E85 fuel stations in the Midwest are taking off, E85 fuel availability on the east coast is still lagging. A new program is trying to change that.


Minnesota, the Midwest’s leader in E85 ethanol fuel stations, has over 369 stations that have added E85 to their pump offerings. As premium fuel sales have dwindled, many station owners have decided to sell regular and E85, instead of regular and premium. Competition has done wonders to keep prices competitive, and now one can drive anywhere within the state of Minnesota, and only be a few miles away from an E85 station. There are more than 40 E85 stations in the Minneapolis Metro area alone.

Twelve hundred miles to the east, in New York State, only about 48 stations currently exist, and only a handful of E85 stations are in the New York Metropolitan area. The infrastructure for selling E85 hasn’t been as popular on the East Coast- perhaps because in the past, tax credits and money to help station owners convert has been scare, or station owners didn’t really know what kind of E85 demand there would be, and have not made the same investment in new pumps and conversion.

A new biofuel gas station conversion initiative aims to change that.

Partially funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, New York State’s Energy Research and Development Authority has announced a new program to help Gas Station owners convert existing tanks and pumps, or install new pumps, to sell renewable E85 fuel.

Stations in New York are now eligible to apply for NYERDA cash grants of up to $50,000, and, in addition, federal tax credits, and money from a group called Growth Energy, who will pay cash to station owners to install an Ethanol blender pump. The combinations of financial incentives and tax credits means that a station owner has to make almost no investment of his own, in order to offer E85 as a new product to his customers.

The program, called PO1093, offers cash assistance to any station owner who applies for help. Approximately $4 million dollars has been set aside to help stations convert, and so far, more than 130 applications have been received. The program manager says there is still sufficient funding to convert an estimated 80 to 150 stations, depending on individual station need.

Jeffrey Gordon, Director of Communications, NYSERDA said, “E85 is a domestically produced alternative fuel that affords consumers a choice at the gas pump over conventional gasoline, is more environmentally-friendly, will reduce our demand for imported oil, and will keep our energy dollars right here in New York. With continued support from our federal and State administrations, E85 ethanol will continue to play a role in NYSERDA’s efforts to help build a vibrant clean energy economy for the future.”

Many more E85 stations will be good news for hundreds of thousands of New York area flex-fuel car owners. According to the website, the average price of gasoline in New York City and Long Island is now $3.04 a gallon, while the average price of E85 is only $2.26 a gallon. That means E85 is a much better deal, where flex-fuel car owners can find it.

Description of New York’s E85 Station Program

Station Application Package and forms

Maps to find E85 stations nationwide

Our Take:
At this moment, crude oil is pouring out of a well in the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 42,000 gallons per day, and it will take a minimum of two months to cap the well and divert it into another rig. That’s 2.5 million gallons of crude—the first wave of which was due to arrive on the white sand beaches of Pensacola, Florida sometime last Thursday. Of course things can go wrong, as the whole incident amply illustrates. Perhaps we ought to plan on 5 million gallons of spilled oil. We can take cheer at the thought that it would take nine months for this disaster to equal the Exxon Valdez (11 million gallons) disaster along coastal Alaska.


We do have to be realistic, though, and recognize that this will not be an isolated incident, with federal energy policy opening up more coastal areas to oil exploration. Hopefully the oil companies will spend some of their $35 billion in annual tax breaks to create more infrastructure for containment – floating booms and such—to limit the toll. Or we can expand ethanol production.


When it comes to ethanol, we’ve always felt ‘the more the merrier.’ Kudos to New York and to Growth Energy for taking this initiative. We hope New York State corn growers see a stronger market for their crop and can take part in the revenue from adding value to it.


So our only question is, who will be next in line to favor local, clean energy and reduce the demand for oil that will ruin beaches and fisheries, kill sea birds and destroy sensitive eco-systems?


Future of cellulosic ethanol remains uncertain

by Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio

Worthington, Minn. — idea of a biofuel made from a cellulosic material was one of the stars of both the Bush and Obama administration’s energy programs, but the future of cellulosic ethanol is in doubt.

Cellulosic ethanol is made from corn stalks, wood chips and other biomass, and by this time, it was widely expected there would be large scale plants producing it. But that hasn’t happened because lenders won’t touch cellulosic ethanol.

Many people still believe in the once-bright promise of cellulosic ethanol.

“Cellulosic ethanol presents a tremendous opportunity for our nation,” said Jeff Broin, CEO of Sioux Falls-based ethanol producer, POET. “Congress has set a target of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol by 2022. This is a lofty goal, but it is achievable.”

POET is the nation’s largest ethanol producer. The Sioux Falls ethanol company has plans to build a cellulosic plant in northwest Iowa, but the start date keeps getting pushed back. Originally, POET officials said cellulosic ethanol production would start in 2009. Then it was 2010, then 2011. Now Broin said it will be 2012 at the earliest.

“With cellulosic ethanol, we’ve seen no shortage of skepticism lately,” Broin told the National Press Club. “That skepticism has been fueled by some companies’ lack of success and the industry’s inability to scale up to meet government projected timelines.”

High corn prices and low prices for the biofuel drove several large ethanol producers into bankruptcy over the past 18 months.

Corn cob ethanol 

Broin and others in the industry are urging the federal government to raise the amount of ethanol it allows to be blended into gasoline. The current standard is 10 percent, but Broin and others want that increased to 15 percent. Broin said that would boost ethanol sales, and increase the odds that cellulosic operations would be profitable.

But beyond the E-15 issue as it is known, there’s a more basic hurdle for the cellulosic industry to clear.

“You just can’t get the financing,” said Arnold Klann, who runs California-based BlueFire Ethanol, which is also planning to build a cellulosic plant.

“Besides BlueFire there’s quite a few other companies as you’re well aware that are all trying to build their first plants,” Klann said. “And each one has different barriers, but fundamentally the least common denominator in all those barriers, whether they’re technical or whatever, is the financing.”

Klann said banks consider cellulosic plants too risky. There are small, pilot cellulosic plants operating but nothing on an industrial scale. Klann said lenders aren’t willing to finance them because they’re not sure a large facility will work.

(read the entire article)

Our Take:
Ethanol from cellulose rather than starch can be done. The only way it can be done though is to produce it side-by-side with corn-based ethanol. Corn ethanol plants are the only players in the market with the experience (some of our farmer-owned plant managers have been at it for more than two decades), and the savvy. With the right market conditions, they are also the ones likely to have the ability and the appetite to take the risk with that much capital. But they will need help.


Cellulose ethanol is not a question of the science. It is being done at the POET demonstration plant in Scotland, SD (corn cobs), and the DuPont Danisco/University of Tennessee/ Genera LLC demonstration plant in Vonore, Tennessee (Switch Grass).


The delay of the Emmetsberg plant is a disappointment, but don’t count cellulose ethanol out yet.


Earlier this year, POET officials spoke publicly about the Emmetsberg project, which has received $100 million in government funding (about a quarter of the cost), and noted that their research and development work to date has resulted in a process that can make ethanol for about $2.35 a gallon, and the company has a goal of $2 cost per gallon. That’s still higher than the cost of producing corn-based ethanol.


Here’s what has to happen to allow the gates to open on cellulose ethanol development. The EPA waiver for E15 will create a market large enough, with enough revenue for corn ethanol plants to capitalize projects like Emmetsberg, which sit at the front end of a corn ethanol plant and utilize the cobs.


As the NPR piece points out, the first commercial cellulose plant will be a special case, and therefore banks, still smarting from the housing bubble and the disintegration of the financial markets, will never be the first into the pool.


If the government were to step up in the role of financier for the first project, that would mean providing about half of the necessary funds, and perhaps guaranteeing the private investment of POET or whoever can manage to bring the first commercial ethanol plant on line.


This approach will require patience—the banks will want to see a number of successful years before they participate.


Those who recall the early days of farmer-owned ethanol plants in Minnesota, in the early 1990s, farmers at first found a reluctance among financiers to provide debt financing. Two things really made bank participation possible in Minnesota—the ten percent ethanol requirement and a producer credit program that paid 20 cents per gallon for the first 15 million gallons of production (a maximum of $3 million per year)—that guaranteed cash flow was critical.


If advocates for the next generation of biofuels want to get the job done, this is what they need to do—create a required minimum blend, and a cash flow guaranteed based on actual gallons of fuel produced.

Research could increase ethanol yield

(Article published by Duluth News Tribune “University, NRRI get energy research grants”)

The Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment has awarded more than $3.7 million to nine renewable energy projects at the University of Minnesota.

The grants include two big and two small projects at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute totaling more than $616,000.

Pavel Krastusky, an NRRI chemist, received $250,000 to move forward with a patented extraction technology to make the corn ethanol process more efficient. The technology extracts further marketable products including biodiesel fuel, glycerin and more ethanol from the byproduct known as dried distillers grains. The NRRI technology also raises the protein levels of the byproduct, making it more valuable as an animal feed.

Our Take:
We might like to say this is not news at all—innovation that focuses on improving ethanol yield and efficiency is an everyday occurrence in the ethanol industry. What is notable is that the research is taking place at our land grant university—we like to point out that the University of Minnesota was founded with improvement of agriculture as a cornerstone of its mission. Despite oil and food processing industry giants funding anti-ethanol campaigns, and a noticeable bias against ethanol at the University of Minnesota, there are still scientists who find it rewarding to pursue ethanol research there.


Perhaps that’s because ethanol is the only currently viable alternative to gasoline. Biodiesel and ethanol are the only transportation fuels that Minnesota produces commercially now, not to mention the facts that these bioenergy industries support tens of thousands of jobs in the state, and generates billions in economic activity each year.


The Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment at the University of Minnesota deserves praise for rising above politics and fashion and for investing in knowledge that will improve the lives of Minnesotans, and everyone who has a stake in clean, domestically produced, renewable energy.

NPR Reports on Ethanol’s stock in the halls of Congress

full story

…At stake are billions of dollars in tax credits for ethanol companies that expire at the end of the year and a pending action at the Environmental Protection Agency that could raise the amount of ethanol in every driver’s fuel tank.

Once a slam dunk, (Growth Energy President Tom) Buis says the industry now has to work harder to convince an increasingly skeptical public and Congress that ethanol continues to deserve government money. A series of television ads launched this week are part of the group’s efforts.

There’s evidence that Congress is weary of giving money to an industry that critics say should be able to stand on its own, after getting its start in the early 1980s with powerful congressional advocates like Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

“It is our view that after 30 years, we should declare success,” says Scott Faber, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food companies that say they have seen their prices rise because of the high use of corn for ethanol.

GMA is part of a growing patchwork of food companies, livestock producers, environmental groups and oil companies who have spent millions of dollars in the last few years framing ethanol’s success as “food vs. fuel.”

“No beaches have been closed due to ethanol spills … no wars have ever been fought over ethanol.”

–         TV ad sponsored by the ethanol industry


They argue that the increase in production of corn and its diversion for ethanol is making animal feed more expensive, raising prices at the grocery store and tearing up the land.

The diversion of corn has been particularly tough on the meat industry, which uses corn for animal feed.

Our Take:
Point One–Not that we can speak for a whole industry, but Minnesota farmers whose corn is made into food, fiber AND energy feel that the current ethanol incentives are about getting to a level playing field—we’re sure the ethanol industry would be glad to move forward without incentives to bribe the oil industry to use ethanol in gasoline, when the federal government ends its subsidies to the oil industry—upwards of $35 billion a year. That’s seven times the amount of the tax credit paid to fuel blenders to assure that the ethanol industry can move its product through the stranglehold that petroleum companies have on transportation fuel. Even when ethanol costs less than gasoline, oil companies with retail fuel outlets have a built-in incentive to use the stuff they get out of the ground—even though the world oil price could be $70 a barrel—the company owned Exxon station is using oil that cost $15 a barrel to pull from the ground—thanks in large part to government incentives.


Point Two: It’s hard to call it a “diversion of corn” from feed markets when a surplus of corn remains each year (USDA currently projects ending stocks of 1.89 billion bushels) and the feed market—still the largest user of corn—has purchased all it can use. The plain fact is that the meat industry has fallen on hard times because, when there’s a recession, people eat less meat. That combined with an oversupply of livestock created a vice that squeezed all the profits out of livestock farming. Corn farmers want to see their number one customer do well, but it’s hard to sit silently when some in the livestock industry attack crop farmers for creating an energy market that has finally, in the last few years, meant that farmers made more money selling their crop on the open market than it cost to produce it. 

All we can say to the grocery manufacturers is shame on you—for gouging your customers and trying to shaft the farmers that supply the raw materials for your products at the same time.

Point Three: Anti-ethanol environmental groups are shilling for the oil companies, intentionally or not. The choice is swapping a few million U.S. farm acres from other crops into corn—or taking oil from Canada’s tar sands region, where oil companies plan to bull doze 1500 square miles of virgin northern forest in order to strip mine heavy crude and their plans to drill for heavy crude further below, will disrupt an eco-system the size of North Carolina. International environmental groups, as well as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have recognized that this region stores more carbon than the Amazon Rain Forest—so when NPR reports that critics say ethanol is tearing up the land, we say the reports need to dig harder for their facts.