Green Plains' Innovation Centers make the most of each corn kernel

Green Plains Inc., of Omaha, Nebraska, uses three Innovation Centers to develop fish food and other “ultra-high” protein and yeast products from corn.

A man tends tanks with fish trials in the foreground and an Optimal Aquafeed logo on the wall.
Adam Bean, lab manager at a fish nutrition lab for Optimal companies, owned by Green Plains, Inc., feeds high-protein products on Nov. 28, 2022, in Shenandoah, Iowa. He studies the results for digestibility and growth, as well as fish health and filet quality.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

SHENANDOAH, Iowa — The products capable of coming out of one kernel of corn, it turns out, are mind boggling. Bring in millions of bushels and you've got a recipe for innovation out of unique locations across corn country.

Green Plains Inc. works to “drive the maximum use of that corn kernel,” says Leslie van der Meulen, the company’s executive vice president of product marketing and innovation.

A company title says Green Plains, Inc., "Shenendoah LLC" plant.
In May 2020, the 80-million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant owned by Green Plains plant in Shenandoah, Iowa, constructed additions for making “ultra-high-protein” feeds and a fish food Innovation Center that tests the products. Photo taken Nov. 28, 2022, Shenandoah, Iowa.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Ethanol remains Green Plains’ biggest product “by volume,” but the value picture is changing, according to Van der Meulen. He heads up the company’s “Innovation Platform." In that role, he also supervises the Green Plains' "Optimal" companies that make fish food and other feeds. Traditionally, dry mill ethanol plants made starch, which are turned into sugar (subsequently ethanol), corn oil and protein.

Ethanol technology is “a critical pillar” in the process, setting up separation of corn into constituents.

In 2021, the ethanol-maker/marketer acquired majority ownership of Fluid Quip Technologies MSC, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Fluid Quip offers back-end, mechanical "fractionation process,” to make a larger number of products than they do today. Instead of three products, the plant can make 200 products. This has been key to adding to the many uses of corn.


Green Plains Inc., of Omaha, Nebraska, is a company that markets corn ethanol coproducts and is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into equipment bolt-ons at their own ethanol plants.

Continuing to innovate

“We believe the world is protein-short, oil-short and sugar-short,” said Todd Becker, chief executive officer at Green Plains. “All of those exist in the kernel of corn."

So Green Plains' Innovation Centers are at work to continue to find value and purpose for every fiber of the corn kernel. Van der Meulen said Green Plains’ “innovations platform” is centered in three locations — Omaha, Nebraska, York, Nebraska, and Shenandoah, Iowa.

A Shenandoah, Iowa, biorefinery includes a new "ring" dryer, with looped piping and hurricane-shaped mechanisms.
In May 2020, the 80 million gallon per year ethanol plant owned Green Plains plant in Shenandoah, Iowa, constructed additions for making “ultra-high-protein” feeds. Among its features is a ring dryer, which uses air pressure to dry high-protein fish food and pet food products at lower temperatures and shorter time than traditional rotary drum dryers.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek


The main Omaha Innovation Center opened in 2022 and includes a welcome and interpretive center, as well as laboratories and a production center. It also features a commercial-scale aquaculture feed mill, state-of-the-art laboratory space for aquaculture and Fluid Quip Technologies, and further lab space for potential future university partnerships.

A covered auger, equipped with cameras and a vacuum system, pulls any errant dust-like high-protein/yeast product from the air.
A covered auger, equipped with cameras and a vacuum system, pulls any errant dust-like high-protein/yeast product from the air and back into the system on Nov. 28, 2022, in Shenandoah, Iowa.
Courtesy Green Plains, Inc.

The Aqua Lab is a fish nutrition test center at its Shenandoah, Iowa, biorefinery.

Cory Scamman, plant manager at Shenandoah, which hosts the Fish Food Innovation center, talked about how his plant started grinding in August 2007 and now grinds 77,000 bushels of corn per year, making 80 million gallons of ethanol per year. They added corn oil production in 2011, and in May 2020, they added high-protein feed in ingredients. In November 2022 they broke ground on “clean-sugar” technology.

Dustin Schulz is vice president of operations for “Optimal” companies. He started Optimal Fish Food while in his master’s studies in aquaculture at South Dakota State University in Brookings. Green Plains bought the company in 2020 and hired Schulz. Green Plains owns Optimal Aquafeed (pet fish food) and Optimal Fish Food (fish farm food).


A man points to a map of the U.S. where his company sells fish food for aquaculture. Many pins are in the South and Southeast.
Dustin Schulz, vice president of operations for Optimal feed companies, at Green Plains Inc., in Omaha, Nebraska, shows on a map the places fish nutrition has been sold on Nov. 28, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Optimal Aquafeed LLC operations manufactures and stores fish food, feed ingredients and other related products.

A jar of ultra-high protein feed product is at right, flanked by traditional products from ethanol plants.
Green Plains Inc. still makes its standard ethanol products, but increasingly is shifting into new products, like the premium ultra-high protein, which is used as a yeast product in some pet and animal foods, among other things. Photo taken Nov. 28, 2022, Shenandoah, Iowa.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Fish food is becoming increasingly important. People around the world are eating more protein, including fish, he said. Half of the fish for food comes from aquaculture, or fish farming, especially in so-called “recirculating” aquaculture systems. Feeding them is tricky.

A building a huge stylized fish logo for Optimal Aquafeed, an aquaculture testing laboratory.
An Optimal Aquafeed fish test laboratory on the campus of the Green Plains, Inc., ethanol/biorefinery at Shenandoah, Iowa, houses its aquaculture tests for products enhanced with ultra-high proteins and yeast. Photo taken Nov. 28, 2022, Shenandoah, Iowa.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

First, fish like carp and tilapia eat high plant-based diets. Carnivores — trout, bass and salmon — normally eat more fish, so are used to higher amounts of protein. Salmon feed must have more than 20% fat. In some of the products, they add yeast, which helps with gut health.

Fish swim in a tank, photographed through a protective netting.
Fish, seen through a screen atop their tank on Nov. 28, 2022, are under test at Green Plains, Inc., biorefinery at Shenandoah, Iowa. They are studied for how well they like the company’s Optima food products, as well as rate-of-gain, health, and filet quality, among other things.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Optimal uses ingredients like whole wheat, soybean meal and dried distillers grains, as well as poultry byproducts, fish meals, wheat middling and their own products. They do growth, palatability and digestibility studies. Innovation employees study the product fish for flavor, texture or color.

A fish food test lab employee holds the small fish food pellets being tested.
Fish feed made by Green Plains Inc., and its Optima companies is fed to fish on Nov. 28, 2022, in a laboratory, on the campus of its Shenandoah, Iowa, biorefinery/ethanol plant.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“It’s pretty important the ingredients we make here work in the fish,” Schulz said, noting that it wouldn’t work if yellow corn gives a green tinge to a pink salmon filet, for example.

As of April 2020, Green Plains started selling some of the products into poultry, swine, dairy and pet food markets, after the technologies were added to other plants. Technology keeps flying forward.

A loader puts yellow distillers dried grain into a truck in the foreground, flanked by a fish feeding test laboratory.
A loader in the foreground at a Green Plains, Inc., ethanol “biorefinery” puts standard distillers dried grains into a truck on Nov. 28, 2022, in Shenandoah, Iowa. It's flanked by a fish food test lab, where the company’s new ultra-high protein products are finding new markets.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Innovation Center at York is a state-of-the-art laboratory for commercial-scale efficiency and sustainability trials. It features a pilot fermentation train used to develop algae and yeast fermentation processes, as an analytical lab, allowing for rapid testing of process yields. Additionally, the Innovation Center has downstream separation equipment used for on-site pilot development of Fluid Quip Technologies’ Clean Sugar Technology (CST™) and testing of process enhancements to the patented MSC™ protein recovery system.

CST produces dextrose with applications in food production, renewable chemicals and synthetic biology. The opportunity to produce new and innovative products utilizing annually renewable feedstocks like corn opens new doors for their company in both carbon reduction and innovative ingredients.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
What To Read Next
Get Local