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Looking for a cure in a kernel
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune


April 29, 2005

Corn has evolved beyond its use as a simple food and livestock feed to become the key ingredient in ethanol fuel and some plastics. And soon, the kernels could become far more valuable as grist for a new generation of medicines and health-promoting specialty foods.

A Minnesota company called Biorefining is emerging as a leader in the industry's race to mine the golden kernels for certain components before their starchy remainder is turned to ethanol at corn-processing plants.

If it succeeds, the technology could turn ethanol plants into "chop shops" producing corn components for medicines and add millions of dollars a year in revenue to farmers and others who own the ethanol plants.

With some patents in hand and more pending, Biorefining says it intends to license the technology to two ethanol plants soon. It's close to signing a deal to supply at least one major pharmaceutical company with substances drawn from corn. And since 2000, the company has raised $2.4 million in private capital.

The question now is whether Biorefining can make its technology viable on a commercial scale.

The intellectual property firm is among those around the world that are racing to find a way to tap the golden potential of corn, which at its most refined levels holds a host of rare sugars.

"There are 80 or more different chemicals and ingredients in a kernel of corn that can be used for a variety of applications, if you take it apart carefully," said Bruce Cook, marketing director for Biorefining. "If you just grind it up and cook it in the ethanol process, all you get out is ethanol, animal feed and carbon dioxide at the other end."

Company President Doug Van Thorre, a chemist and physicist, said the firm's new method uses far fewer chemicals, without a lot of heat, than now are used by other companies to take apart the basic components in corn: protein, oils and bran, which is the hull.

"It's cleaner, greener, faster, cheaper," Van Thorre said.

The three-step process begins with what the company calls "biomilling," which mechanically cracks the raw kernels to obtain oil, protein and carbohydrates. The starch goes into a fermenter to make ethanol.

The other extracted components can be further refined for possible use as building blocks in medicines and "functional" foods, also called nutraceuticals, that help prevent and treat a variety of ailments, from heart disease to arthritis.

The nation's leading ethanol plant builder, Ron Fagen of Fagen, as well as the giant agribusiness Cargill are among those watching from an arm's length. Biorefining executives have discussed their potential with both Fagen and Cargill.

"We're just very cautious because we've got to have a real good confidence level before we suggest it to an ethanol plant," said Fagen, who has built more than 50 plants so far and has 52 more on the drawing board. "We want to be on the leading edge _ not the bleeding edge."

Cargill, the nation's largest private company, said it does not comment on companies with which it has not signed agreements. Cargill's current strategy includes turning corn into a resin for plastics, clothing and blankets made by other companies.

Biorefining says its process makes ethanol plants not only more profitable but also more efficient as they send to the fermenter only the starch from the kernels.

An average plant that produces 40 million gallons of ethanol a year could triple its profits if it sells such co-products along with ethanol and livestock feed, Thom Menie, Biorefining's vice president of marketing and sales. That's three times as profitable as simply turning byproducts to livestock feed, he said.

Biorefining is negotiating with an engineering firm to put the technology into ethanol plants. Existing dry-grind ethanol plants - the vast majority of plants in the country _ can be retrofitted at a cost of about $14.5 million, with a stand-alone facility nearby, Menie said. Or the technology can be built into new plants popping up around the country at a quickening clip.

Biorefining says its method can extract from corn certain substances used as building blocks in medicines to fight viral diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis, as well as to prevent and treat urinary tract infections and even stop tooth decay and plaque.

One of the rare sugars the company is after is called L-arabinose, which is being studied as a building block for pharmaceutical ingredients.

"We've been contacted by a major pharmaceutical company that is working on a hepatitis drug that is based on L-arabinose as a key building block," Menie said. "They're looking at it for a long-term, stable supply for their applications."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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