An Aspiring Alternative to Petroleum

How zein extraction is helping green America’s future.

The coating on your morning vitamin, the freshness seal on the apple in your lunch box and the bottle your afternoon soda was sipped from all share a common tie. Every one of these products has a petroleum base. That’s right. They all have a base coming from a barrel of crude oil — most likely shipped in from a foreign country.

But, what if the petroleum base in each of these products could be replaced with a renewable corn base? What if they could be biodegradable and non-hazardous? What if they could be made from a product right here in the United States?


Inviz, POET’s brand of zein, is the answer to all these questions. A non-toxic, edible protein, Inviz is being extracted from a POET co-product of ethanol production called Dakota Gold HP distillers grains. Inviz comes from POET’s already existing corn supply, and best of all, it utilizes a lower nutritional part of the feed product.

Unlike commercial zein that is currently extracted, Inviz sets itself off from the crowd. Taking advantage of POET’s BPXTM process, Inviz, along with Dakota GoldTM HP, are rated as one of the best in each of their respective co-product markets. Another plus to the extraction of Inviz — it can be implemented into the current production cycle at many POET plants.

“The corn kernel has so much untapped potential,” Jeff Broin, CEO for POET says. “With Inviz, we are still providing fuel and highprotein feed to the world while using the least nutritional part of the kernel to replace even more petroleum-based products.”


Similar to the history of biofuels, zein use was not uncommon in the early part of the 20th century, but the natural protein lost its appeal when the petroleum industry grew and displaced biofuels and biochemicals with petroleum based products.

“A few decades ago, there were 8 to 10 million pounds of zein consumed in all types of applications,” explains Weishaar. “As the petroleum market gained momentum and developed their products, they were able to market petroleum based substitutes at a lower cost. So zein use really went by the wayside.”

Now, as we are moving toward more natural and renewable products as well as alternative energy sources, the use of zein fits perfectly as an alternative to petroleum-based products.


Today, zein is used in two main products: it works as an ingredient in protective coatings, one coating found on fruit to help ensure freshness and the other on pharmaceuticals to ensure stability.

POET is already able to extract enough Inviz to fulfill the demand for the current market. And with several POET biorefineries that are capable of implementing this process, the supply of Inviz can be greatly increased and will find use in new applications.

“Our commercialization of Inviz is starting at a low volume with intentions to grow the market,” says Scott Weishaar, POET’s Vice President of Commercial Development. “We have the ability to produce 1.5 million pounds at our Scotland facility, which approximates the current market size. This can be duplicated and replicated at many existing POET plants and should we do this, we can make 400 to 500 million pounds of zein.”

“POET is large enough to produce what would be needed and price it competitively enough to make it work,” says John Lawton, Senior Scientist at POET. “I see POET being valuable in getting zein back in the marketplace.”


With the addition of several million pounds of product to the market place, several applications are being researched. Potential is found in candy, agricultural films and biodegradable plastics — from any item where a water barrier is desired to products like apparel fibers and certain paper types.

“We have only seen the tip of the iceberg for zein’s useage in the industrial marketplace” says David J. Sessa, Research Chemist, Plant Polymer Research, ARS/USDA, Peoria, Ill. “Its use in bioplastics, as a green alternative to petroleumbased plastics is forthcoming to generate biodegradable packaging. Potential new uses of zein are now on the horizon in the food, medical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.”

“There are applications out there that use petroleum-based products to coat paper,” says Lawton. “Right now, there is a company that’s looking at trying to use zein to replace fluorinated polymers that go on papers in the restaurant industry to resist grease. With some modification, we would like to get into those types of products.”


Sessa points out that zein, a coproduct of ethanol, helps increase the value of ethanol production with several potential opportunities.

POET’s Weishaar painted the visual of a barrel of crude oil set next to a bushel of corn. “There are not very many things that the bushel basket of corn can’t replace that come from the crude oil,” he says. “This is one of those [products] that eventually will lead to plastics and more applications. This is something we believe is a good market launch.”

And that it is. Bringing zein back into the marketplace will create the opportunity to displace several thousand barrels of oil with a clean, renewable, homegrown product — bringing ethanol production facilities one step closer to full biorefinery and energy independence.

The Scientist Behind Inviz

POET Senior Scientist, John Lawton has spent his career working on zein, much of it at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research at USDA ARS in Peoria, Ill. That extensive research has made him one of the world’s foremost experts on zein. In fact, the Wikipedia entry for zein lists three papers authored or co-authored by Lawton. Those are just a few of the 32 peer-reviewed journal publications and five book chapters that Lawton has authored on zein and related topics and he is also responsible for four patents.

Recognizing that expertise, POET hired Lawton almost three years ago so that he could lead the company’s efforts to develop commercial production of zein. The two had collaborated on zein research a few years prior to Lawton’s arrival at POET.

For his part, Lawton wanted to come to POET because he recognized that the way POET produced ethanol resulted in a co-product that was a better starting point for zein. The Dakota Gold HP distillers grains produced with POET’s proprietary fractionation and “no-cook” technologies of BFRACTM and BPX, contains a protein that hasn’t been damaged by heat. As noted in the release, Lawton is excited to see the commercialization of his life’s work in the lab.



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