A field of red sorghum

A biofuel’s greenhouse gas production is measured from the time farmers plant a crop to when a vehicle burns it. Advanced biofuels result in less greenhouse gas production than do conventional biofuels, such as corn ethanol.

Almost all ethanol produced in the US is a conventional biofuel made from corn starch, a source criticized as a source for energy production because of its impact on food and livestock feed prices.

It’s doubtful that the use of sorghum will draw the same complaints because though it produces an edible syrup, it’s sold mainly to feed poultry, cattle and other livestock.

Currently the only advanced biofuels in the US come from either sugar cane-based ethanol imported from Brazil or from domestic biodiesel, a mixture of petroleum diesel and renewable sources soybean oil.

Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, said, “We need to continue to expand the base of feedstocks from which we produce biofuel.”

Sorghum has environmental advantages over corn crops. It’s more tolerant of drought, produces about the same amount of ethanol per bushel as corn and requires one-third less water.

Yet, because it’s less plentiful than corn, it’s seldom used. US corn acres outnumber sorghum 16 to one.

Additionally, most ethanol processing plants are in the Corn Belt around Iowa and Illinois; sorghum is grown primarily in the central and southern Great Plains. Top producing states are Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas.

The EPA concluded that grain sorghum qualifies as an advanced biofuel if it’s made at plants with prescribed green technology.

Western Plains Energy, LLC, in Oakley, Kansas makes conventional ethanol, and aims to be the first to upgrade to that green technology. It’s installing equipment that will cut down on water use and turn waste into a fertilizer and will use methane gas from cattle manure instead of natural gas.

The transition will cost between $30 to $40 million dollars and be done by early next year.

Curt Sheldon, the plant’s chief accounting officer said, “We’re going to try to produce over 50 million gallons (of advanced ethanol) per year. At today’s prices we could probably pay for the project in two or three years.”

Chris Cogburn, strategic business director for the National Sorghum Producers, shares Sheldon’s optimism. He believes sorghum-based ethanol will be attractive because advanced ethanol commands a higher price than conventional ethanol.

Most of Western Plains Energy’s board members and managers are farmers. “And farmers are the ultimate environmentalists,” Cogburn said. “They have to live on the land, work the land and raise their kids out there. We want to do our part.”

Source:  LubbockOnline, August 19, 2012

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