Sweet sorghum eyed for biofuel

By , Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor

Sweet sorghum, a sugarcanelike plant that thrives in semi-arid climates, can cheaply provide food, animal feed, and fuel all at the same time without straining food supplies, said agriculture experts Monday.

In a press release, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), a nonprofit based in Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, India, found that the crop's hardiness and versatility could provide a steady income for poor farmers.

"We consider sweet sorghum an ideal ‘smart crop’ because it produces food as well as fuel," said ICRISAT director William Dar. "With proper management, small-holder farmers can improve their incomes by 20 percent compared with alternative crops in dry areas in India."

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Mark Winslow, an agronomist with ICRISAT, told Reuters that the 10-foot-tall crop's stalk can be used for ethanol production while retaining the food grain that grows on top.

Unlike corn-based ethanol, which uses one and a half times as much energy in its production as it offers as an end product, sweet sorghum produces eight units of fuel for every unit of fuel used to make it in developing countries, Winslow said....
The farmers who grow it can still use the grain to feed themselves, turning it into traditional porridge and flatbread, and their livestock, while selling the fuel-producing sugary liquid contained in the stalks to the distillery.
The crop can survive without irrigation, but also tolerate flooding and even some salinity, Winslow said. Because it grows in arid areas, it does not threaten sensitive rainforest as palm oil biofuel does in Southeast Asia and sugarcane biofuel can in Brazil, Winslow said.
Like other biofuels, ethanol made from sweet sorghum does not produce the emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide that fossil fuels do.
Because it grows in some of the poorest places on Earth in Asia and Africa, it has the potential to keep limited resources from these parts of the world at home, rather than sending them to oil-producing countries, Winslow said.

In June 2007, ICRISAT opened a bioethanol plant in Andhra Pradesh that uses sweet sorghum as feedstock and produces more than 10,000 gallons of ethanol a day. The group is also teaming up with Tata, India's largest corporation, to build a facility in Maharashtra State that will produce almost 8,000 gallons of sweet sorghum ethanol a day. Reuters reports that other countries eyeing the crop for fuel include Mexico, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Mozambique, Uganda, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil, and the United States, the world's leading sorghum producer.

The crop is not without its drawbacks. The juice from the sweet sorghum stocks must be fermented or refrigerated within hours of being harvested. That means that production plants would need to be close to the sweet sorghum fields, and that they would most likely operate only during the harvest season.

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