Advanced biofuel production gets boost from sorghum

Dec 7, 2012

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last week that it has approved grain sorghum as an eligible feedstock under the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), clearing a path for ethanol plants to use the crop in the production of biofuels.

“This is a significant step forward for the sorghum industry,” said Bill Kubecka, Sorghum Checkoff Program chairman and a producer from Palacios, TX. “This pathway for grain sorghum will make sorghum a more profitable biofuel feedstock for the renewables industry, thus increasing the value and demand for sorghum.”

According to EPA, ethanol produced from grain sorghum emits 32 percent less greenhouse gas (GHG) than the baseline petroleum it replaces and uses onethird less water than some other biofuel feedstocks.

EPA’s announcement is significant in allowing the domestic production of advanced biofuels from grain sorghum as envisioned in the 2007 Energy Bill.

In June, EPA released a notice of data availability concerning renewable fuels produced from grain sorghum under the RFS program, followed by a 30-day comment period. EPA’s analysis showed grain sorghum, when used to make ethanol at facilities that use natural gas, has a GHG emissions reduction of 32 percent, qualifying it as conventional ethanol. This will give individual ethanol plants the ability to finalize their qualification process to produce advanced biofuels. National Sorghum Producers (NSP) expects at least one existing ethanol plant to qualify very soon.

According to EPA, when grain sorghum is used to make ethanol at facilities that use biogas digesters in combination with combined heat and power technology, it achieves a lifecycle GHG emissions reduction of 53 percent, qualifying it as an advanced biofuel feedstock under the RFS.

Unfortunately, carbon dioxide capture was not included in the pathway. NSP will continue working with EPA to get this completed to allow even more ethanol plants to produce advanced biofuels domestically.

Most of the ethanol produced in the U.S. is made from corn. With the skyrocketing prices of corn, both the agriculture and ethanol industries have suffered.

Proponents of ethanol made from sorghum believe the use will not create the same battle because sorghum is not a key ingredient in as many foods and is sold mainly as a feed source.

Sorghum is also known to be more tolerant of drought than other crops, including corn, and it can produce about the same amount of ethanol per bushel as corn while requiring one-third less water.

Corn acres outnumber sorghum acres by about 16 to one, and most of the ethanol plants are in the Corn Belt, bringing some challenges to plants wanting to jump on EPA’s plan.

Chromatin Inc., a privately held provider of innovative crop breeding technology, sorghum seed products and feedstocks, announced they had generated the first crop of sorghum that has been grown and used for ethanol production by a California ethanol company, Pacific Ethanol, Inc. The announcement came last week, along with EPA’s sorghum announcement.

Using sorghum seed provided by Chicago-based Chromatin, Inc., L and R Mussi Farms of Stockton, CA, produced 40 acres of sorghum that were harvested and delivered to Pacific Ethanol’s ethanol production plant in Stockton, CA.

“We were pleasantly surprised by sorghum’s flexibility. It’s a high-yielding, easy to grow crop regardless of environmental conditions, and it uses less fertilizer and less water than corn,” said Rudy Mussi, co-owner of Mussi Farms.

Daphne Preuss, Chromatin’s CEO, commented, “We were pleased to see that growers were able to plant and produce high quality sorghum with minimal modifications to their current practices and that ethanol plants encountered no difficulties in substituting sorghum for corn.

In addition, Chromatin has shown that the residue left over after the harvest of sorghum grain can be used as high quality animal feed, further enhancing the output from the land used in production of this crop.”

Ethanol plants in California have been seeking alternative crops for corn to reduce feedstock costs, improve carbon footprint, and to source feedstock from locally grown energy-efficient crops. While sorghum imported from other regions has been used in California ethanol plants in the past, Chromatin’s program is the first instance of supplying locally grown grain to the Pacific Ethanol plant in Stockton, CA, resulting in greater cost efficiency and an improved carbon footprint. Consequently, by using sorghum grain, ethanol producers may qualify as Advanced Bio-fuel Producers and become eligible for financial incentives.

According to Neil Koehler, Pacific Ethanol’s CEO, “During the third quarter, Pacific Ethanol used sorghum for approximately 30 percent of the feedstock at our Stockton plant. Blended with corn, sorghum has similar conversion properties to corn and produces even lower carbon ethanol.”

Chromatin is exploring other opportunities to grow sorghum grain in California and expects to expand its production in 2013.

So far, there has been no opposition to EPA’s approval and the potential of growth in sorghum ethanol.

EPA’s proposed rule was originally released in May. In June, a notice of data availability concerning renewable fuels produced from grain sorghum was published in the Federal Register. The public comment period on the rule closed in July. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor