A Sweet Opportunity for Biofuels

By Florentino Lopez | June 13, 2011

During the past few years, two words seem to be crossing the minds of many in the ethanol industry—sweet sorghum. Its versatility and potential as a green biofuel feedstock have many ethanol producers excited about the future of this “sweet” crop.

Just like our dedication in promoting grain sorghum for biofuels production, the Sorghum Checkoff is now looking to the future to find the most profitable possibilities for all sectors of the sorghum industry. Sweet sorghum is offering new opportunities for biofuel production and biochemical producers every day.

Unlike its grain sorghum cousin, sweet sorghum stands around 14 feet tall. Its composition is similar to that of sugar cane, but requires much less water to grow. For decades, sweet sorghum was mainly used to make syrup from the sweet juices stored in the stalk. Those same sweet juices make an attractive biofuel feedstock. From Texas and Florida to Oregon and Wisconsin, sweet sorghum can be grown just about anywhere. In warmer climates, sweet sorghum can potentially be harvested as many as two or three times a year, providing a constant supply for a variety of products, including biofuel. 

Previous studies have determined sweet sorghum is a preferred energy crop because of its proven agronomic suitability for several regions, its high sugar content, and its ability to be easily inserted into crop rotation patterns. The Sorghum Checkoff and Louisiana State University are working to identify optimal management protocols related to planting and harvest decisions for using sweet sorghum as a biofuel crop. Sweet sorghum has potential as a ratoon crop, allowing multiple harvests from the same planting.

It is imperative that we understand the impact of production practices before viable biofuels facilities can be developed. The Sorghum Checkoff is also funding research at LSU to determine if it is a profitable option to grow multiple crops per year and to identify the compatibility of sweet sorghum with other crops. This would make including sweet sorghum in a crop rotation a more profitable option for sorghum producers.

And let’s not forget another important element of sweet sorghum biofuels production—bagasse.  When the juice is extracted from sweet sorghum stalks, it leaves behind bagasse, a useful byproduct that can be made into cellulosic ethanol or burned to create green energy that could power homes and businesses. Bagasse also has the potential to be utilized as a livestock feed. The high levels of fiber in bagasse, combined with a protein supplement, have feed potential for beef or dairy producers. There are also possibilities to use bagasse as a green fertilizer in fields.

The possibilities for sweet sorghum continue to raise eyebrows of ethanol producers and farmers in many regions of the U.S. Its water sipping qualities, high production potential, ability to grow multiple crops per year, and versatile processing options make it an alluring choice for biofuels. The Sorghum Checkoff will continue working to determine the most valuable ways to grow and process sweet sorghum and bagasse. So, when ethanol producers are thinking “green” there’s no doubt that sweet sorghum can produce many “sweet” opportunities.

Author: Florentino Lopez
Marketing Director, United Sorghum Checkoff Program
(806) 687-8727