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Barley’s bio-opportunities

Ethanol facilities across the Canadian Prairies currently rely mainly on wheat for their starch source.

March 2, 2009  By Carolyn King

Ethanol facilities across the Canadian Prairies currently rely mainly on wheat for their starch source. Could barley also be a crop platform for ethanol? The results from the Barley Bioproducts Opportunities Project (BBOP) show barley can be competitive. The key is a business model and business plan that leverages the distiller’s grain co-product and over time looks at other value-added opportunities including extraction of high value compounds for nutraceuticals and other products.

Milled grains and distillers grains from barley, a co-product of ethanol production: distillers grains from barley, corn and wheat sources had comparable nutritional characteristics for livestock feed.  Photos courtesy of Barley Bioproducts Opportunities Project.  

Although barley is competitively priced and widely available in Western Canada, it was initially ignored as a possible ethanol crop platform for three key reasons. It has lower starch content than wheat or corn. Barley hulls are very abrasive to biorefining equipment. And barley contains beta-glucan. Beta-glucan makes the barley mash viscous, which slows ethanol processing. In addition, distiller’s grain with high levels of beta-glucan is not suitable for non-ruminant feed, although it is fine for ruminant feed. “Because there was no real work being done in Canada to consider barley as a crop platform for biorefining, this project was put forward to help us evaluate if barley would be competitive and technically practical compared to some of the other crops,” says Carman Read, BBOP Project Manager.

BBOP was jointly funded and managed by Alberta Barley Commission and Western Barley Growers Association. It was supported by industry partners Syngenta, Ceapro, Wilbur-Ellis Company and Parkland Agri Services. The project also received funding through Alberta’s Agriculture and Food Council from the Biofuels Opportunities for Producers Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.


The project, which ran from spring 2007 to fall 2008, provides a broad initial look into biorefining opportunities for barley. It involved three phases: Technical Feasibility, Business Feasibility, and Business Plan.

In the Technical Feasibility phase, University of Alberta researchers Dr. David Bressler, Dr. Ruurd Zijlstra and Dr. Jonathan Curtis investigated three aspects: the efficiency of converting grain starch to ethanol, the nutritional value of the distiller’s grains, and the opportunities for high value co-products.

To assess the starch conversion efficiency, the researchers compared three barley varieties: Viterra’s Xena, CDC Bold, and CDC Fibar (a hulless variety), to Pioneer Hi-bred corn and CPS wheat. They also compared three conversion processes: a high-temperature process; a low-temperature process; and a modified low-temperature process that the researchers developed. The low temperature methods had various advantages, such as conserving nutrients and reducing energy use.  Using the modified low-temperature process, the barley varieties had starch-to-ethanol conversion rates similar to those for wheat and corn.

Barley has the potential to be converted into ethanol and valuable co-products.  

The analyses of the distiller’s grains from the barley, corn and wheat sources showed that the distiller’s grains from barley are comparable to those from wheat and corn for many of the key nutritional characteristics for livestock feed. For example, the barley distiller’s grains had the highest in-vitro energy digestibility levels, and had crude protein levels between those for corn and wheat distiller’s grains.

The low-temperature processing methods preserved, and in some cases concentrated, high value compounds such as phenolics, unsaturated fatty acids, and tocopherols. These compounds have potential uses in nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products. For instance, phenolic compounds reduce the risk of a wide range of chronic diseases. Unsaturated fatty acids are associated with lowering “bad” cholesterol. Tocopherols are vitamin E antioxidant compounds important for human and
animal health.

While BBOP was being carried out, other research initiatives have been addressing the barley hull and beta-glucan issues. In fact, these problems now have the potential to become opportunities. United States Department of Agriculture researchers have recently developed a barley starch conversion process that includes enzymes that convert beta-glucan into sugar, which can then be converted into ethanol. Alternatively, a processor might choose to remove the beta-glucan from barley and use it for nutraceuticals or other products because beta-glucan has been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and to improve immune function. Recent advances in dehulling technology are also helping to improve biorefining opportunities for barley. Read says, “It’s now relatively easy to remove the hulls without removing much of the starch. The hulls can then be burned in a combined heat and power operation, or put back into the distiller’s grains.” The energy generation opportunity is one of the options evaluated under BBOP‘s Business Feasibility and Business Plan phases by Kelwin Management Consulting and Shambrock Consulting Group Inc. These two Winnipeg-based consulting firms assessed four business models for BBOP. The consultants’ “base model” is a facility that produces ethanol, distiller’s grains for livestock feed, and carbon dioxide for industrial and food uses. The other models involve extracting various high value compounds and adding a biomass combustion system to burn the screenings and hulls for energy.

They found that the base model would be profitable. They recommended that investors start with this model and then expand over time into some of the other options, as opportunities emerge through advances in research and technology, changing markets and new partnerships. Not fuel versus feed, but both togetherIn the coming months, Read and others involved in BBOP will be sharing the project’s results with interested agencies, including potential barley-based ethanol processors. Read says barley-based ethanol processing has some extra capital costs, such as dehulling equipment, so it may be of most interest to businesses wanting to take advantage of specific co-products. He notes, “My sense is that the big opportunity is for those major feeders that are currently buying a lot of feed. They have a critical mass of animals needed to utilize the distillers grains from a reasonable sized plant and the wherewithal either individually or with partners to finance the needed scale of facility. Feeders would also be best positioned to benefit from other aspects of biorefining, like the combined heat and power and dealing with manure disposal issues with an integrated biogas operation.” Integrating ethanol processing with a feedlot can reduce costs and improve efficiencies. Read cites examples of successful ethanol-feedlot operations like Pound-Maker in Saskatchewan (using mainly wheat) and Reeve Agri-Energy in Kansas (using corn and grain sorghum). He adds, “Osage Bio Energy is also looking at building four ethanol facilities based on a barley crop platform in the southeast United States over the next two years. They are almost following our business model to a T.”

Read emphasizes that BBOP is not about pitting new barley markets against the current markets. “One of the things we felt as the project got started was that barley-based biorefining would broaden the base of demand for barley, giving growers better returns and better local markets. However barley bio-refining also has to provide benefits to the feeding industry. … The barley grower wins when every segment of his customer base is doing well, whether that be the traditional malt and feed or the emerging bio-refining markets.”

Along with demonstrating barley’s potential, BBOP has also highlighted areas for further research, like breeding barley varieties for biorefining, and evaluating the commercial feasibility of extracting some of the high value compounds.

Read concludes, “The project’s results show barley can compete. That’s the bottom line. First of all, technically you can convert barley to ethanol and deal with issues like the abrasiveness of the hulls and the beta-glucan. Secondly you can demonstrate that there’s a profit with a reasonable business model. And thirdly there are provincial and federal government programs to get you started. But those programs do have end dates, so if you’re going to do it, and you have clear access to reliable markets for the processed products, I’d say now is the time to do it.”

More information on the Barley Bioproducts Opportunities Project is available at


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