Sugar Beets, Sorghum Vie for Credibility as Ethanol Feedstocks

The prolonged US drought has got us wondering about the
progress of ethanol feedstock alternatives to corn
that would have less of an
impact on the global food supply.

So, we read with interest that biofuels company Patriot
Bioenergy Corp. – which is testing a system for converting non-edible sugar
beets into ethanol – is planning a facility on 99 acres in Kentucky.

If its plans are approved, the plant – which you can
think of as a new-fangled distillery — could be up and running in 24 to 28

Patriot Bioenergy will use natural gas to run its
refining process. But we have mixed feelings about the feedstock: genetically
engineered Roundup-Ready sugar beets. Those crops would be grown by farms
surrounding the plant’s site.

Roger Ford, the CEO of Patriot, told local reporters at
press conference announcing the project:

"They’re phasing out the ethanol corn subsidy in
America, and after 30 years, it’s gone as far as it can go. Why energy beets?
First, it’s been selectively bred as a crop. We hope to produce two crops a
year. It’s such a high sugar yield crop, and we can get on average 800-1,500
gallons an acre. We’ll need less land to produce it in the spring and fall
months. And second, there’s a longer timeline in harvesting it. Once it comes
in, it will continue to grow. Processing the beets would use natural gas more
efficiently than with corn. We’ll get sugar directly from the beets, and we
won’t need an extra step to convert the starch from corn into sugar. So that
process is removed, and you shorten the distillation time," Ford said.

Patriot Bioenergy’s plan took shape after the US
Department of Agriculture deregulated the GMO sugar beets, which are resistant
to the herbicide glyphosate.

The plan still has to clear a number of other
administrative hurdles, including funding and construction of certain
infrastructure at the site. At full production, the plant would create up to
120 green jobs, says Patriot Bioenergy.

Sorghum Nears Federal Approval

The US may soon approve sorghum, a grain used mainly for
livestock feed, as a feedstock alternative that could help create a cleaner
version of ethanol.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been
accepting comments about the grain’s potential, which would give biofuels
makers a domestic alternative to sugar cane-based ethanol typically imported
from Brazil. It hasn’t said when it will issue its policy ruling on sorghum,
but the pressure for a decision is mounting.

Almost all of the nation’s ethanol today is made from
cornstarch, which has been a cause of grave concern during the prolonged US
drought this summer.

Sorghum is more drought-tolerant than corn, and it
requires one-third less water to cultivate. Right now, it is mainly used to
feed poultry, cattle and other livestock. The downside is that there isn’t as
much of it as corn: right now, the number of acres used for US corn outnumber
those for sorghum by about 16 to one.

There is also a matter of geographic: sorghum is grown
primarily in states like Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and
Texas while most of the nation’s ethanol plants are centered around Iowa and
Illinois. That means adopting sorghum will take investment in new equipment.

Among the first companies poised to upgrade their
technology is Western Plains Energy LLC in Oakley, Kansas, which makes
conventional ethanol today, reports Associated Press. The company is investing
$30 million-$40 million in equipment that will use methane for the distillation
process and turn the waste materials into fertilizer.

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

Another company already investing in sorghum production
is Abengoa Bioenergy, which has converted its ethanol plant in Portales, New
Mexico, to produce up to 30 million gallons per year of ethanol from grain grown
on the High Plains of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico.

Abengoa Bioenergy is a subsidiary of Abengoa S.A.
(ABG.MC). It is the largest European ethanol producer, one of the largest
producers in the U.S., and the only worldwide bioethanol manufacturer with production
facilities on three continents.

The worldwide ethanol market could reach 27.7 billion gallons by the end of 2012, according to a new report from Global Industry Analysts.  

The US and Brazil dominate the market in terms of production. Brazil is also a big consumer, projected to use 7.45 billion gallons by 2015, while Canada is one of the fastest growing markets.

For more on sorghum’s status as an ethanol feedstock:

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