Sorghum: A Biofuel Alternative?

In the United States, sweet sorghum is grown for livestock feed and also used as a sweetener in the form of a syrup. In India, the sweet juice inside the plant’s stalk is turned into ethanol and used as a fuel.

This has spurred William Rooney and his team at Texas A & M to work with sorghum. They say it grows faster than corn and can produce more ethanol per plant. “In the near future as we move forward you will see these types of crops become more and more prominent,” Rooney said.

Today, nearly all the ethanol in the U.S. comes from corn. It is widely used as a gasoline additive. But using corn-based ethanol has not stopped gasoline prices from rising, and researchers are experimenting with algae, grasses, and plant stalks as biofuels.

Gene Stevens, at the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri, works with sorghum.

“We produced as much ethanol with the corn as we did with the sweet sorghum but the only advantage was that we used less fertilizer with the sweet sorghum,” he explains. “It may be that sweet sorghum may have a niche in some of those soils that are not so productive.”

Also, producing ethanol from sorghum uses less energy than corn — says Mark Winslow with the non-profit International Crops Research Institute.

“The process yields about eight times more energy than it consumes so it is a much more energy efficient way to produce ethanol,” Winslow says.

Critics of corn based ethanol production say it has contributed to rising food prices because of the amount of grain used to make the fuel. That explains, in part, why the search is on to find other biofuel sources.

“I think you are going to hear more about the crops that are starting to make sense,” Rooney says.

Among them sorghum, says Rooney, a proven source of ethanol with more potential than corn.