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Thursday, October 28, 2004

Sweet sorghum, another excellent biofuel crop

Here at the BioPact we are closely monitoring tests and experiences with tropical bioenergy and biofuel crops. A few days ago, we reported on a field trial with a new variety of Sorghum in the Philippines, that is showing interesting results. Today, we focus a bit more in depth on the widely used plant.

According to the Sorghum profile in the Handbook of Energy Crops, the plant grows well in a wide range of climates and ecozones, from Cool Temperate Steppe to Wet through Tropical Thorn to Wet Forest Life Zones. Even though it is adapted to tropical and subtropical summer rainfall climates with rainfall from 25–125 cm annually it is of little importance in more humid areas with higher rainfall. This is important because it means that Sorghum does not grow in tropical rainforest areas. (Critics often focus on biofuel crops only from this perspective, perpetuating the myth that all bioenergy crops destroy the last remaining rainforests.) It also means that the vast Sahel region, where plenty of land is currently unused, may become a Sorghum energy hotspot.

Seed yields may be as high as 6,000 kg/ha, depending on cultivars and growing conditions. It yields great forage for silage as well (around 50MT/ha) and with the advent of cellulose ethanol, this biomass may be used as a biofuel feedstock (besides the grain). But the grain alone produces a lot of feedstock for "first generation" ethanol: a good sorghum hectacre will produce 5000 litres of syrup out of which some 4500 litres (500 gallons per acre).

Sorghum map:

Derived from the FAO's Land Suitability Maps for Rainfed Cropping database.

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Friday, October 22, 2004

Sorghum, a source of ethanol for biofuel production - Philippines test case

For our project, it is crucial that we learn more about the best biofuels and bioenergy crops for the subtropics and the tropics. It seems Sorghum is a great candidate, as it grows in relatively dry regions (the Sahel) and does not in the least like rainforest zones (an often heard critique made by uninformed people is that all bioenergy crops destroy tropical rainforests).

Even though Sorghum is already being grown by millions of African farmers in the Sahel, an interesting test case with a new variety comes from the Philippines.

The sweet sorghum hybrid — called SSH 104 — is rich in sugar that can be easily converted into ethanol. Combined with petrol or diesel, ethanol can be used as 'gasohol' — a fuel that is considerably less polluting than conventional ones.

What's more, once ethanol has been extracted, sorghum can be used as a nutritious animal feed.

These are not the only benefits, says William Dar, director-general of the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which developed the new sorghum variety.

Research by ICRISAT scientists has shown that the sorghum is easier to grow than sugarcane — another source of ethanol — and matures in just four months, compared to 12 to 16 months for sugarcane. This means sorghum needs only about one-fifth of the water required by sugarcane.

During a recent visit to the Philippines, Dar told officials at the country's Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR) that the hybrid can tolerate drought, water logging, and high soil salinity.

DA-BAR's director, William Medrano, says the use of sorghum as a biofuel fits with the Philippine government's current energy conservation efforts, which involve the development and use of biologically derived alternatives to expensive oil imports.

Medrano told SciDev.Net that the first sweet sorghum seeds will arrive in the Philippines in December and field trials will take place in central Luzon and parts of Mindanao, where the landscape suits the cereal's requirements. Regional agricultural research centres funded by DA-BAR will conduct the research.

"If these field trials bear positive results, we will intensify our research efforts to make the technology sustainable so that later we could mass-produce it for distribution and commercialisation," says Medrano.

"It is high time to include sorghum in the Philippine government's list of priority commodities for research and development because of its numerous uses aside from food."

Victoria Abrera, head of Environmental Policy and Planning at the Environmental Management Bureau in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told SciDev.Net: "We have been very supportive of the government programme to promote use of ethanol".

Abrera says the department will advocate use of sorghum, if the trials show it is efficient.


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