Sorghum’s emergence as an ‘advanced’ biofuel may be less than 2 years away

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, June 1, 2012

U.S. EPA published a notice of data availability last week to announce the possibility of grain sorghum’s eligibility as an advanced biofuel.

This marks the first time a domestically grown grain is eligible for the designation, applied only to fuels that emit at least 50 percent less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, and could provide a homegrown alternative to the most commonly used advanced biofuel available: sugar-cane ethanol from Brazil.

The phones at the National Sorghum Producers office have been ringing constantly since EPA’s announcement, said Tim Lust, CEO of the farmers association, but promise of advanced sorghum ethanol is still one to two years away.

“There’s a little bit of perception out there today that this is automatic, and that’s not the case,” Lust said.

Burning sorghum ethanol as a fuel emits about a third less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, when the entire life cycle is considered, according to EPA. But if the ethanol production plant runs on renewable biogas instead of natural gas in a combined heat and power system, the fuel can reach a 53 percent reduction, crossing the 50 percent threshold needed to meet the advanced biofuel requirements under the national renewable fuel standard.

While Lust does not know of any ethanol factories that use both biogas and combined heat and power, facilities do exist with one or the other. None have moved up to a large scale, however.

A reedy plant with a bushy, grain-filled head, sorghum has been used for many years to make molasses and animal feed. But a declining export market and the displacement of sorghum feed for corn have shrunk the industry, so the possibility of tapping into the ethanol market is a promising one for producers.

Investors scramble to buy in

The timing is right. InterCore Energy on Tuesday made a 25 percent equity investment in Epec Biofuel Holdings Inc., which makes a sorghum-based ethanol. Another advanced biofuel company, Ceres, opened a sorghum subsidiary two years ago and is working with the industry to introduce sorghum into existing ethanol. Last month, the company announced that its hybrid sorghum had been converted successfully into renewable diesel made by the company Amyris.

Another firm, Chromatin, has also planted sorghum for an experimental run to power two California power plants.

The renewable fuel standard mandates that 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuel be blended into the U.S. fuel supply by 2022, in an effort to boost production while limiting the expansion of corn ethanol gallons to 15 billion. EPA projects that 2 billion gallons of advanced biofuel will be made this year.

“It really is the best-case facility that the EPA has outlined as meeting that advanced biofuel criteria,” said Chris Malins, the fuels program lead at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

The potential barriers to sorghum’s renewable credentials lie not in scientific difficulties but rather in sourcing ones, said Malins. To produce biogas, the facilities would need to source a renewable feedstock like agricultural waste or manure, making location near a waste dump or a feedlot a critical consideration.

“It’s not a technical barrier,” he said. “It would be a supply question.”

Ethanol trade association Growth Energy applauded EPA’s announcement.

“Improving the competitiveness of domestically produced ethanol has a dual impact on the American economy — creating more jobs and opportunities, while simultaneously providing U.S. consumers with cleaner, cheaper fuel choices,” said Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy.