Green Plains' Innovation Centers make the most of each corn kernel
Green Plains Inc., of Omaha, Nebraska, uses three Innovation Centers to develop fish food and other “ultra-high” protein and yeast products from corn.
SHENANDOAH, Iowa — The products capable of coming out of one kernel of corn, it turns out, are mind boggling. Bring in millions of bushels and you've got a recipe for innovation out of unique locations across corn country.
Green Plains Inc. works to “drive the maximum use of that corn kernel,” says Leslie van der Meulen, the company’s executive vice president of product marketing and innovation.
Ethanol remains Green Plains’ biggest product “by volume,” but the value picture is changing, according to Van der Meulen. He heads up the company’s “Innovation Platform." In that role, he also supervises the Green Plains' "Optimal" companies that make fish food and other feeds. Traditionally, dry mill ethanol plants made starch, which are turned into sugar (subsequently ethanol), corn oil and protein.
Ethanol technology is “a critical pillar” in the process, setting up separation of corn into constituents.
In 2021, the ethanol-maker/marketer acquired majority ownership of Fluid Quip Technologies MSC, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Fluid Quip offers back-end, mechanical "fractionation process,” to make a larger number of products than they do today. Instead of three products, the plant can make 200 products. This has been key to adding to the many uses of corn.
Continuing to innovate
“We believe the world is protein-short, oil-short and sugar-short,” said Todd Becker, chief executive officer at Green Plains. “All of those exist in the kernel of corn."
So Green Plains' Innovation Centers are at work to continue to find value and purpose for every fiber of the corn kernel. Van der Meulen said Green Plains’ “innovations platform” is centered in three locations — Omaha, Nebraska, York, Nebraska, and Shenandoah, Iowa.
The main Omaha Innovation Center opened in 2022 and includes a welcome and interpretive center, as well as laboratories and a production center. It also features a commercial-scale aquaculture feed mill, state-of-the-art laboratory space for aquaculture and Fluid Quip Technologies, and further lab space for potential future university partnerships.
The Aqua Lab is a fish nutrition test center at its Shenandoah, Iowa, biorefinery.
Cory Scamman, plant manager at Shenandoah, which hosts the Fish Food Innovation center, talked about how his plant started grinding in August 2007 and now grinds 77,000 bushels of corn per year, making 80 million gallons of ethanol per year. They added corn oil production in 2011, and in May 2020, they added high-protein feed in ingredients. In November 2022 they broke ground on “clean-sugar” technology.
Dustin Schulz is vice president of operations for “Optimal” companies. He started Optimal Fish Food while in his master’s studies in aquaculture at South Dakota State University in Brookings. Green Plains bought the company in 2020 and hired Schulz. Green Plains owns Optimal Aquafeed (pet fish food) and Optimal Fish Food (fish farm food).
The Optimal Aquafeed LLC operations manufactures and stores fish food, feed ingredients and other related products.
Fish food is becoming increasingly important. People around the world are eating more protein, including fish, he said. Half of the fish for food comes from aquaculture, or fish farming, especially in so-called “recirculating” aquaculture systems. Feeding them is tricky.
First, fish like carp and tilapia eat high plant-based diets. Carnivores — trout, bass and salmon — normally eat more fish, so are used to higher amounts of protein. Salmon feed must have more than 20% fat. In some of the products, they add yeast, which helps with gut health.
Optimal uses ingredients like whole wheat, soybean meal and dried distillers grains, as well as poultry byproducts, fish meals, wheat middling and their own products. They do growth, palatability and digestibility studies. Innovation employees study the product fish for flavor, texture or color.
“It’s pretty important the ingredients we make here work in the fish,” Schulz said, noting that it wouldn’t work if yellow corn gives a green tinge to a pink salmon filet, for example.
As of April 2020, Green Plains started selling some of the products into poultry, swine, dairy and pet food markets, after the technologies were added to other plants. Technology keeps flying forward.
The Innovation Center at York is a state-of-the-art laboratory for commercial-scale efficiency and sustainability trials. It features a pilot fermentation train used to develop algae and yeast fermentation processes, as an analytical lab, allowing for rapid testing of process yields. Additionally, the Innovation Center has downstream separation equipment used for on-site pilot development of Fluid Quip Technologies’ Clean Sugar Technology (CST™) and testing of process enhancements to the patented MSC™ protein recovery system.
CST produces dextrose with applications in food production, renewable chemicals and synthetic biology. The opportunity to produce new and innovative products utilizing annually renewable feedstocks like corn opens new doors for their company in both carbon reduction and innovative ingredients.