New cutting-edge technology that will be used at a Danville ethanol plant could prove to be a boon to local farmers.

The Danville Three River Bio-Grain Refinery, which will be built next to the Southern Coal Handling Services facility on East Main Street west of Lynch Road, is one of nine facilities that will become the first commercial production users of the Chen-Xu Process of converting corn to ethanol in the United States.

“This is going to change the way ethanol is produced,” said Dale Elder, vice president and chief financial officer of Reed-Three Rivers, the parent company of the proposed Danville plant.

Each facility, including Danville’s, plans to produce 240 million gallons of ethanol annually, along with six other human food-grade and pharmaceutical byproducts.

“It’s ‘green.’ There is no pollution with the process, and our co-products are more saleable,” Elder said.

Professor Lifu Chen and Dr. Qin Xu of Purdue University’s Food Sciences Department developed the new process. An exclusive global license was granted in August 2006 by Purdue Research Foundation to Bio Processing Technology Inc. to develop commercial utilization of the new technology.

Two weeks ago, Bio Processing Technology Inc., of West Lafayette, Ind., and Reed-Three Rivers Bio-Grain Inc. of San Jose, Ill., reached an agreement allowing Reed-Three Rivers to use the Chen-Xu Process.

Elder said his private corporation hopes to acquire a little more ground near the coal-loading facility in Danville before construction starts the beginning of the year.

The plant will employ 225 to 250 workers. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued an air permit for the project in March.

“It’s going to be a big plant,” he said.

While the main source of energy at the facility will be natural gas, Elder said the Chen-Xu Process will allow it to be “a very clean burning” plant.

Elder praised Chen as the “Thomas Edison of ethanol production,” adding that Chen developed the process over 40 years.

Even though Reed-Three Rivers Bio-Grain has been involved with ethanol-producing projects for eight years, it’s only been recently the corporation learned of Chen’s work.

“About 14 months ago we got wind of what they were doing at Purdue,” he said.

Before the Chen-Xu Process, ethanol plants utilized one of two processes: wet milling or dry milling.

Elder said the wet milling process emits pollution, while dry milling creates an overabundance of Distiller’s Dry Grain (DDG), which is used in cattle feed, but the amount left over from the ethanol process is even more than what is needed to produce feed.

“At dry mill (ethanol) facilities, there’s a lot of DDG sitting around,” he said.

With the Chen-Xu Process, the entire corn kernel is used, Elder said.

Besides ethanol, the process yields food-grade and pharmaceutical byproducts and zein — a protein of the corn kernel that, when heated, turns to elastic and can be used to make biodegradable surgical gloves, Elder said.

“About the only thing left over is salt that municipalities can use as road salt,” he said.

Farming benefit

Elder said the Chen-Xu Process uses less water for ethanol production than the other processes.

That’s because Chen-Xu uses very moist corn that is dried in a patented dryer in its process.

“We want farmers to pick corn at 30 to 36 percent moisture content,” Elder said.

“That means farmers would pick their corn at the end of July, and depending on their latitude, they might be able to get a second crop in,” he said.

Elder said corn that is picked when it still has high moisture content has 17 percent more starch.

“When we get more starch, we get to make more ethanol,” he said.

Tracy Wahlfeldt, executive director of the Economic Development Division at Vermilion Advantage, declined to comment about the ethanol project and deferred questions to Elder.

Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer, however, said he was excited about the number of jobs the ethanol plant will create, as well as the boost it will give the farming community and the partnership that the area will forge with higher education institutions, such as Purdue and the University of Illinois.

“First, the number of jobs it will create — that’s exciting for the community,” he said.

“And to utilize a crop that is well grown in this county gives area farmers an opportunity to sell their product and create a situation where the product is more in demand because of a process developed not too far down the road,” Eisenhauer said.

“This also begins to open the door to share our agriculture community with Purdue and U of I,” he said. “Hopefully, that partnership will be long lasting.”

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