Going Green

Monday, September 3, 2007

Sweet Sorghum Ethanol

On farm production of ethanol could be a significant step in developing energy independence for American agriculture. Combined with solar and wind energy production, farming operations could be able to supply not only their own energy needs, but have excess energy to sell. In effect, they would become "energy farmers."

'Sweet' Biofuels Research Goes Down On The Farm

Science Daily — Oklahoma State University’s sorghum-related biofuels research is taking a localized approach, with the aim of making possible the effective production of ethanol in the farmer’s own field.

Sweet sorghum can be grown throughout temperate climate zones of the United States, including Oklahoma. It provides high biomass yield with low irrigation and fertilizer requirements. Corn ethanol, in contrast, requires significant amounts of water for growing and processing.

Best of all, producing ethanol from sweet sorghum is relatively easy, said Danielle Bellmer, biosystems engineer with the OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources’ Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center.

“Just press the juice from the stalk, add yeast, allow fermentation to take place and you have ethanol,” Bellmer said. “Unfortunately, the simple sugars derived from sweet sorghum have to be fermented immediately.”(....)

Of course, farmers will need to develop some new skill sets. This might open opportunities for the entrepreneurial minded to offer in-field sweet sorghum processing as a service -- similar to custom harvesting.

The goal is to make production of ethanol from sweet sorghum economically viable by using an in-field processing system that minimizes transportation costs and capital investment.
Equipment such as the harvester and other technology could be owned individually or cooperatively with a number of producers sharing and possibly helping one another process ethanol from sweet sorghum.

In Oklahoma, the potential processing scenario might look like this: Plant sweet sorghum around mid-April, and then stagger plantings for two to three months. This would provide a harvest window of August through November.

“Ethanol yields in Oklahoma could range from 300 gallons to 600 gallons per acre, depending on biomass yield, sugar content and juice expression efficiency,” said Chad Godsey, biofuels team member and OSU Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist with the department of plant and soil sciences.(....)

Three hundred to six hundred gallons per acre is a lot! On a quarter section of land that's 48,000 - 96,000 gallons of ethanol!

“We would like to do with sweet sorghum what the Brazilians have done with sugar cane: In Brazil, sugar cane ethanol provides a large percentage of their fuel needs,” Bellmer said.

The idea of using sweet sorghum for commercial ethanol production is not new. The reason sweet sorghum is not as popular as corn in terms of being a source of ethanol in the United States has been the need to ferment its simple sugars immediately and the high costs associated with a central processing plant that is operated only seasonally.

“By determining a process by which agricultural producers can create ethanol in the field from sweet sorghum, that barrier is removed,” Bellmer said. “Producers will then have a much higher value product to sell.”

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Oklahoma State University.

If the in-field processing technology becomes a reality, this could revolutionize the way farmers operate. A percentage of acreage in each annual crop rotation would need to be dedicated for fuel production. Excess fuel could then be transported to a central gathering facility. We would see a whole new market spring up with pricing based on quality grade, etc. Entrepreneurs get ready.


bigwhitehat said...

Show Me the Money.

Plowing and Sowing said...

I am with you BWH. Tell me if I am wrong, will not putting more sorghum on the market also drive down the price of corn? Can't sorghum and corn be interchanged in feed? It has been a while since my Poultry Science days so I am not sure if that is right or not.

Panhandle Poet said...

Milo for grain is a substitute for corn in feed rations. Milo doesn't have quite as high of a feed value because of the hard coat on the seed. It is less digestible. Milo and corn track very closely in the market. With milo below corn on a weight-to-weight basis.

Looking at sweet sorghum for ethanol we're dealing in a whole new realm. The ethanol value is in the sugars which are in the stalk -- not the grain. That is why it must be processed quickly. Otherwise it loses it's energy value.

With more and more ethanol plants coming online and with increasing demand for ethanol I'm not sure it is an issue. The alternative fuels markets will take years to stabilize because it is all so new. Current ethanol production practices are inefficient. That efficiency is improving almost daily. Eventually it is hoped that we will move to a cellulosic base for ethanol rather than a feed grain like corn. That will further change the dynamics. We will be able to use corn stalks, wood fiber, cotton burrs, etc.

Over the next few years there will be opportunities everywhere in the alternative fuels market. The question will be as always, how to position yourself.