Research Award: Corn Ethanol’s Positive Role in Health and Medical Arenas

14 11 2011

Ethanol, University of Illinois, bioplastic, corn oilDr. Munir Cheryan will be lauded this Tuesday with an ethanol award for his modern advances in the arena of ethanol production.  Research professor at University of Illinois’ Agriculture Bioprocess Laboratory, he continues to license more patents and works alongside Prairie Gold, Inc. since 2006 toward the commercialization of high-value ethanol by-products.

corn ethanol, Illinois, University of Illinois

I called Dr. Cheryan earlier today to garner a further insight into his accomplishments and breakthroughs. Although I will not delve into every shared detail, the main takeaways hold enough magnitude to stand on their own.

Dr. Cheryan’s research ramped up in the 1980s because he wanted to be a part of solution to clean air, reduce pipe emissions and enable a farm support program. Until this time, ethanol production was a costly, time-intensive process that, in his words, relied on “moonshine technology.”  His research and breakthroughs helped augment the time efficacy of ethanol production and brought it from 100 hours down to 24 hours or less by improving the separation process.

In the ‘90s he helped improve the energy ratio for ethanol production by the application of membrane technology in several areas of corn processing. A key driver for efficiency improvement was to drive costs down for ethanol production; Dr. Cheryan saw this market signal’s solution was to seek out higher valued co-products from corn that can co-exist with ethanol. Zein, one of four proteins found in maize, touts a whole suite of applications and can be extracted from the corn without reducing yield of the ethanol end-product; this protein is natural, biodegradable and can be used in agriculture (hay baling), in the manufacturing of plastics, food products (a non-stick, biodegradable chewing gum) and in biomedical markets (for medical sutures that safely dissolve in the body).

An accidental co-product discovered from zein extraction demonstrated corn’s ability, after ethanol production, to offer additional benefits to, this time, the health market. Dr. Cheryan explained to me that the compounds, lutein and zeaxanthin, which make corn yellow in color (same for Marigold flowers!) also contribute significantly to retina and cardiovascular health while preventing age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. He envisions a future opportunity to sell the crude material to vitamin companies.

Another coproduct from his technology is a “healthy” corn oil containing much higher levels of health-promoting compounds than conventional corn oil. A unique feature of all Dr. Cheryan’s processes is that corn-based ethanol is used instead of petroleum-based solvents.

Key takeaway: Dr. Cheryan’s devotion will help ethanol stand on its own in a competitive market saturated with petroleum-based products while improving the quality of our air and health.

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