Texas-sized sorghum to fuel future ethanol output
At 6-feet-6, Richard Hamilton is taller than the average man, but the president and CEO of energy crop company Ceres, Inc. feels tiny next to the massive grain-free sorghum crops his company has helped engineer.
Grain yield is not the goal with these crops. Scientists at Ceres and the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station (TAES) at Texas A&M University developed this sorghum to grow up to 20 feet tall and yield a massive amount of plant matter that the next generation of ethanol plants will convert into biofuel.
Most existing U.S. ethanol plants produce ethanol from corn, but high corn costs and falling ethanol prices have squeezed margins. U.S. ethanol production capacity currently stands at about 6.8 billion gallons a year.
"The target is 15 to 20 tons (of sorghum biomass) per acre, depending on geography and rainfall," Hamilton said.
That type of yield could produce up to 2,000 gallons of ethanol per acre of crop, about four times the yield of an average acre of corn. Sorghum also requires less water and only about a third of the fertilizer that corn needs.
"We've worked to come up with sorghum lines that are really not going to flower and set seeds. They're not going to put their photosynthetic energy into filling a grain head; they're going to put it into putting up more biomass," Hamilton said.
Farmers may be growing the massive sorghum as soon as 2009 or 2010 for the small number of cellulosic ethanol plants expected to be up and running on a commercial scale by then.
Farmers can use existing farm equipment, with only minor adjustments, to harvest the sorghum stalks and leaves which the biorefineries will then break down and convert into ethanol. Continued...