BISMARCK, N.D. – The federal government is on the verge of approving a grain mainly used as livestock feed to make a cleaner version of ethanol, a decision officials say could give farmers a new moneymaking opportunity, boost the biofuels industry and help the environment.
A plant in western Kansas already is gearing up to take advantage, launching a multimillion-dollar renovation so it can be the first to turn sorghum – a plant similar in appearance to corn – into advanced ethanol. Advanced biofuels result in even less lifetime greenhouse gas production than conventional biofuels.
The only advanced biofuels in the United States now are sugar cane-based ethanol imported from Brazil and domestic biodiesel, a mixture of petroleum diesel and renewable sources such as soybean oil, said Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association. Advanced ethanol made from sorghum would give the nation another option as it aims to meet the federal goal of producing 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels per year by 2022.
We need to continue to expand the base of feedstocks from which we produce biofuel, Hartwig said. It’s a good first step.
Almost all the ethanol produced in the U.S. now is conventional ethanol made from corn starch. Critics of the ethanol industry complain too much corn is going to energy production, resulting in higher food prices for consumers. Corn affects food prices in multiple ways because it’s a widely used ingredient in food manufacturing and it’s used to feed livestock.
More grain sorghum going to fuel production is unlikely to spark the same complaints, because it is not the main ingredient in a number of foods. While it can be used in human food, it’s sold mainly to feed poultry, cattle and other livestock. Sweet sorghum produces edible syrup.
Sorghum also has environmental advantages. It is more tolerant of drought than other crops, including corn, and it produces about the same amount of ethanol per bushel as corn while requiring one-third less water.
It’s less often used than corn in conventional ethanol because corn is much more plentiful, Hartwig said – U.S. corn acres this year outnumber sorghum acres about 16 to one. Also, most ethanol plants are in the Corn Belt focused around Iowa and Illinois, while sorghum is grown primarily in the central and southern Great Plains. The Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that ethanol made from grain sorghum can qualify as an advanced biofuel if it’s made at plants with the proper green technology.