Florida firms looking at sorghum as biofuel source

(Journal stock photo by Larry Dreiling.)

Technology to make ethanol from sweet sorghum is readlily available

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP)--Sweet sorghum is best known as a syrup poured over hot biscuits.

But now a half-dozen Florida companies want to serve up the crop as a biofuel for creating ethanol.

Its future as a biofuel looks sweet: The crop is more environmentally friendly than sugar cane or corn, and has a higher energy yield.

Biofuels are plant-derived sources of energy. Refined, they can be added to gas or used alone as a fuel.

Even the credit crunch isn't stopping companies from moving forward, although they say the lack of loan money could slow the industry overall.

"The syrup has been around forever. The idea for ethanol hasn't," said Morris Bitzer, a University of Kentucky professor emeritus who fields as many as 50 inquiries a month from around the world about sweet sorghum as an ethanol feedstock.

"It's so hot that I have shipped seeds to 30 countries and to five places in Florida."

While the United States has no commercial production of ethanol from sweet sorghum, last year China and India produced 1.3 billion gallons of ethanol from the crop, Bitzer said.

Although sweet sorghum is being promoted as a "new energy crop," it has been grown in the mid-South for more than 80 years, said Zane Helsel, a visiting Rutgers University professor who is field-testing sorghum varieties at the University of Florida Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade.

The technology to make sweet sorghum into ethanol is readily available, unlike the technology needed to make cellulosic ethanol, which is derived from plant wastes or waste from processing, such as sawdust, or crops grown specifically for fuel production, such as switchgrass.

Sweet sorghum "is much like sugar cane," Helsel said. "You can squeeze the juice out and straight up ferment it to ethanol, like grapes and winemaking."

Helsel said the numbers from his test plots show sweet sorghum yields ranging from 100 to 600 gallons of ethanol per acre.

When it comes to use as a biofuel, sweet sorghum is one-upping sugar cane on its own turf. Many Florida companies hoping to produce ethanol considered sugar cane or corn as feedstocks before settling on sweet sorghum.

"After 18 months of research on sugar cane, we said, 'What else is available?"' said Brian Donovan, CEO of Renergie Inc. in Gainesville. "A friend started growing sweet sorghum in China. Now everybody is a sweet sorghum fanatic."

With the right variety and harvesting equipment, sweet sorghum can yield up to 800 gallons of ethanol per acre, Donovan said.

Donovan's company plans to start construction this month on a plant in Kaplan, La., and eventually hopes to build as many as 10 biorefineries in Florida. For now, infrastructure is lacking here, he said.

Not everyone is sold on sweet sorghum.

While some say it grows year-round in South Florida, except perhaps in January, Callery-Judge Grove production manager Mark DuBois said he found the crop did not grow well in the summer. Also, there's no market for it now, except for cattle feed, and it's too expensive to haul it from the grove near Loxahatchee to the nearest cattle in Okeechobee County, DuBois said. He doesn't plan to plant it again.

"Where do you take it while you are waiting three to four years to grow a sorghum crop for biofuel?" DuBois said. "I have taken a real hard look at the sorghum thing. I can't make it come out on paper."

More work needs to be done with the crop, said George Philippidis, associate director of Florida International University's Applied Research Center in Miami.

"There is all this hoopla about sweet sorghum," he said. "A lot of people are jumping to conclusions and making statements with very little information in hand. It has not been done here. We need to see how the soil and the climate and everything else works with sweet sorghum."

The crop is "promising," Philippidis said, but "big plans for a plant here and a plant there are premature."

Bradley Krohn, president of Tampa-based United States EnviroFuels LLC, said: "These projects are difficult. You have to have a grower base. It's not like corn where you can buy it off the open market."

Even so, Krohn is forging ahead with plans for a $70 million sweet sorghum-to-ethanol plant with a 20 million-gallon capacity in Venus.

As for financing, the credit crunch could actually help ethanol plants attract dollars from investors looking for a place to put their money where they can expect an upside, Donovan said.

Krohn is more pessimistic. He believes tight credit markets will hurt the renewable fuel industry, as most companies need to obtain a certain level of debt financing. "It could either eliminate projects or slow projects down significantly," Krohn said.

Ray Coniglio, president of Global Renewable Energy in Sebastian, which has grown three different sorghum crops, said the company is applying for a federal grant while lining up investors and farmers.

"It may be difficult finding all the investors we need, but we are prepared for that," Coniglio said. "Florida has a mandate of 10 percent ethanol by 2010. If we don't produce it here, we will have to import it. It is a very good opportunity."

Other companies looking to produce ethanol from sweet sorghum include Southeast Renewable Fuels LLC in Fort Lauderdale and DeGrande Biofuels Corp. in Altamonte Springs.

Los Angeles-based New Planet Energy LLC, which has an office in Vero Beach, plans to use it as part of the feedstock mix for a plant planned there.

And at Destiny, the futuristic city to be developed near Yeehaw Junction, sweet sorghum is being planted in test plots.

"We have enough information to suggest that with fuel prices what they are now, it should be economical," Helsel said. "It's something we can do right now until we get other technologies like hydrogen and fuel cells."

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