Sorghum goes epic, or is that EPEC? A primer on biofuels’ underdog feedstock

May 30, 2012 |

The Underdog feedstock is getting Big Mo’, getting’ its due, with sorghum-based ethanol making the grade under optimal conditions as an advanced biofuel pathway, and EPEC landing new investment.

What’s up? What’s next? New pathways, plus country-by-country yield data.

Sorghum. It’s a feedstock right out the pages of the old South —  sorghum syrup served with corn bread and Lowcountry boils.

It never had the cachet of algae, the claim-and-flame of jatropha, or the big brand names like BP and Dupont to wave around, as with switchgrass and miscanthus.

There’s sweet sorghum and grain sorghum, and they have been steadily on the march, and this past week they have made some key advances worth noting.

The plant holds unmatched versatility for bioenergy applications because sorghum is the only energy crop platform that can provide starch, sugar and lignocellulose.

In addition, sorghum is capable of growing across a wide geographic area within the US, thrives on marginal lands, is water and nutrient efficient and provides a low overall environmental footprint; and sorghum does not directly compete as a domestic food resource.

So, onto the news for this week.

First, on May 25, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a Notice of Data Availability to release its lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) analysis of ethanol produced from grain sorghum. This new data signifies the first time a domestically-produced grain ethanol could qualify as an advanced biofuel under the Renewable Fuel Standard.

The EPA analysis found that ethanol produced from grain sorghum has an estimated lifecycle GHG emissions reduction of 32 percent compared to gasoline. Evidence also indicates that when biogas is used in conjunction with combined heat and power technology, grain sorghum ethanol achieves a 53 percent reduction in greenhouse gas relative to gasoline.

Over at Growth Energy, CEO Tom Buis lauded the study, noting that “this breakthrough data marks a tremendous accomplishment for our industry, and serves as further evidence of the importance of the Renewable Fuel Standard. The potential for qualifying as an advanced biofuel is a testament to the ingenuity and competitiveness of U.S. ethanol production. Ethanol continues to prove itself as a more efficient fuel.”

“Improving the competitiveness of domestically-produced ethanol has a duel impact on the American economy – creating more jobs and opportunities, while simultaneously providing U.S. consumers with cleaner, cheaper fuel choices,” Buis concluded.

The EPA plans to initiate a 30-day comment period before finalizing the data.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, InterCore Energy, rebranded from Heartland Bridge Capital to emphasize its focus on opportunities in the clean energy space, has made its first investment in the space by acquiring approximately 25% of Epec Biofuels Holdings and gaining up to two seats on the company’s board. Epec is leading the development of the emerging Ethanol 2.0 supply chain by developing and implementing an industry integration platform, featuring sorghum as its prize feredstock.

In this manner, Epec plans to build the foundation of a domestic advanced biofuel industry capable of producing billions of gallons per year of sustainable engine fuel in a cost effective, environmentally friendly, and positive net energy balance fashion.

Who else is working on sorghum? Among top feedstock developers, Ceres and Chromatin are hard at work.


Back in 2010, Ceres has opened a subsidiary to provide sweet sorghum for ethanol production. The company said that it is currently working with multiple ethanol mills, technology providers and equipment companies to facilitate the introduction of sweet sorghum hybrids into existing ethanol mills.

Most ethanol operators are confident that canes of sweet sorghum can be harvested, transported and processed with existing sugarcane equipment, according to Ceres.

By last month, Ceres reported that their sorghum hybrids were successfully processed into renewable diesel by Amyris, under a U.S. DOE grant. Amyris is expected to present summary of the results at the 34th Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The pilot-scale project evaluated both sugars and biomass from Ceres’ sweet sorghum hybrids grown in Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana and Tennessee.  The sorghum derived syrup was processed by Amyris at its California pilot facility into its trademarked product, Biofene.


Last year, Constellation Energy and Chromatin announced a memorandum of understanding to supply two California power plants with a sustainable supply of renewable biomass grown specifically for use as fuel in the plants.

In anticipation of this, Chromatin is growing three fields of biomass sorghum. The harvested biomass will be test burned to determine the feasibility of using sorghum as a fuel source to generate electricity at two power plants in California that are owned jointly by Constellation Energy and North American Power Group.

“Today,” noted Chromatin CEO Daphne Preuss, “our sorghum is expected to have an energy content that is more than 70 percent of coal – roughly equivalent to firewood. Our breeding and crop engineering program is generating new varieties of sorghum that are expected to have an even higher energy content with lower levels of ash and other contaminants.”

This current crop of energy sorghum is a leafy plant that grows 10 to 15 feet tall and reaches maturity in a few months. In contrast, the sorghum varieties that have been bred to produce grain are smaller and thus not as well suited for use as energy biomass.

For more background

The Sorghum Checkoff is an excellent organization to tap for background, data and contacts.

Some quantitative data

Here’s a look, from 2009, at sorghum yields around the world, as a free download via Biofuels Digest Gold Access.

The Bottom Line

This one’s a keeper; it’s promise as an off-season rotation crop in Brazil is immense. But don’t discount the opportunities to grow biomass-rich, low-cost feedstock for power or fuels via grain sorghum.

It’s an unheralded feedstock, but for sure the star breakout opportunity of 2012. Keep a close eye on the stakeholders in this sector.

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