China, U.S. sign accord at sorghum workshop

By Ryan C. Christiansen | August 04, 2008
Web exclusive posted August 22, 2008 at 9:33 a.m. CST

An unexpected crowd of more than 200 people gathered in Houston on Aug. 19-22 to explore the potential for using sweet sorghum as a feedstock for ethanol. Attendees of the International Workshop on Sorghum for Biofuels witnessed the signing of an international agreement between the United States and China to work together to establish the necessary processes and infrastructure for converting sorghum and other feedstocks to ethanol.

The agreement between the USDA and the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People's Republic of China opens the door for collaboration between the USDA's Agricultural Research Service National Center for Ag Utilization Research and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

"We didn't know anything about [the agreement] until about 30 minutes prior (to the signing)," said Blair Fannin, a spokesperson for the Texas AgriLife Research program at Texas A&M University, one of the workshop sponsors. "That really strengthened relations and also really got the conference going," he said.

"This is where relationships are built," Fannin said. "During the breaks and the hallway meetings and people meeting face-to-face—that goes a long a long way and that's worth a million bucks to the energy industry and the agricultural industry when we can develop these relationships face-to-face and establish some continuity and move things forward."

Only 75 people had pre-registered for the workshop, Fannin said, and so it was a surprise when the conference was filled to over capacity. "In normal times when we're not in an energy crunch, if you have a sorghum conference, you have only the typical people come," he said. "But this thing drew a wide variety of folks [including] some really heavy hitters from across the country who were there to find out more about how sorghum can play into the biofuels arena."

Fannin said the interest far-exceed organizers expectations. "This is a critical issue. We're in tough times with trying to make our dollars stretch for the average consumer. Judging by the attendance, there are a lot of folks, not just here in the United States, but globally, that are really serious [about] coming up with better solutions for our energy needs. This was a positive step."

According to the USDA, sorghum is attracting greater interest as a bioenergy crop because it's tolerant of drought and grows well on marginal lands not suitable for most other crops. It also produces high yields even after an abbreviated production cycle and requires minimal amounts of fertilizer and irrigation. Scientists at the ARS are part of the international research community studying sorghum genetics and genomics, production systems and conversion processes to optimize biofuel production.

The workshop featured speakers from the National Sorghum Producers, the U.S. DOE, Texas A&M University, the Idaho National Laboratory, Oklahoma State Energy Office, the National Renewal Energy Laboratory, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp. (Embrapa), the Hebei Academy of Agricultural and Forestry Sciences, Tsinghua University in China, Kansas State University, ICM Inc., the Joint BioEnergy Institute, and Oklahoma State University-Stillwater. The event was sponsored by the USDA, Texas A&M University, National Sorghum Producers, Embrapa, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, and Tsinghua University.

Workshop participants were also invited to visit Texas A&M University to learn about ongoing research there and the construction site for Verenium Corp.'s 1.4 MMgy demonstration cellulosic ethanol plant in Jennings, La.

"Texas is the perfect place to be hosting this conference," Fannin said, "because we do have large agricultural and energy sectors here. We do grow a lot of commodities, including sorghum, here in Texas, and a lot of the traits that a lot of folks are looking at in sorghum—being drought tolerant and can grow on marginal lands—we do have that here."