Collaboration to Scale-Up Sweet Sorghum for Ethanol

CeresLogoSmooth Ceres, Inc., an agricultural biotechnology company, and Brazilian energy company Raízen S.A., today announced the signing of a multi-year collaboration agreement to develop and produce sweet sorghum on an industrial scale.

Under the collaboration, the companies will each contribute in-kind services and resources and share in the revenue from the ethanol produced from Ceres’ sweet sorghum above certain levels. This season, Raízen has planted Ceres’ sweet sorghum evaluation in a single location and plans to expand to multiple mills in the seasons to come.

Sweet sorghum can be grown to complement existing feedstock supplies and extend the operating season of Brazilian sugarcane-to-ethanol mills. In addition to sweet sorghum, Ceres markets high biomass sorghum to mills and other agri-industrial facilities for use in generating electricity, heat and steam in Brazil. In the U.S., Ceres is marketing improved forage sorghum hybrids to dairies and livestock producers.

EPA Seeks Comments on Sorghum-to-Biofuels GHGs

epa-150The federal government is seeking public comment on its preliminary analysis of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to the production of biomass sorghum feedstock to make biofuels. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) invited the comments after a recent study by the agency that showed biomass sorghum is suitable for the same conversion processes as approved cellulosic feedstocks such as switchgrass and corn stover and would qualify for cellulosic biofuel (D-code 3) renewable identification numbers (RINs) or cellulosic diesel (D-code 7) RINs.

This notice explains EPA’s analysis of the growth and transport components of the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from biomass sorghum, and describes how EPA may apply this analysis in the future to determine whether biofuels produced from such biomass sorghum meet the necessary GHG reductions required for qualification under the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) program. Based on this analysis, we anticipate that biofuels produced from biomass sorghum could qualify for cellulosic biofuel renewable identification numbers (RINs) if certain fuel production process technology conditions are met.

More information on the comment process and period is available here.

Sorghum for Cellulosic Ethanol Update

While corn stover might be the big talk recently in the cellulosic ethanol game, sorghum could emerge as an alternative to the feedstock for the advanced green fuel. During the recent American Seed Trade Association CSS 2014 and Seed Expo in Chicago, Leah Guffey caught up with Scott Staggenborg of Chromatinasta-css-14-chromatin, a sorghum genetics company, and they talked about using sorghum for cellulosic ethanol.

“People forget that many of sorghum’s original uses were for animal feed, so biomass yield is important and digestability is important,” said Staggenborg. “So if you think about cellulosic ethanol production, it’s just really a big, steel or concrete digester, rather than a four-legged digester.”

He went on to say that with the 40,000 varieties of sorghum availability, his company is taking advantage of traditional breeding and modern molecular methods to get the most out of sorghum, especially for cellulosic biofuels. One of the breeds he points to as having great potential for biofuels is sweet sorghum, which he compares to an annual sugarcane, except sorghum has to re-established each year from seed.

“It’s high biomass, and it has high juice yields, as well as high sugar yields,” Staggenborg explained. “Those three combined result in high sugar yields per acre, and that’s the goal of our breeding program, as well as altering the composition of the sugar itself.”

He added that the Renewable Fuels Standard is a big driver in making sure there is a market for sorghum-based, or any other feedstock-based, cellulosic biofuel.

“The RFS establishes a market, establishes a need, sort of primes the pump for the demand, until it becomes something that widely available, although it’s already widely accepted, and allows a fledgling industry to move forward.”

You can hear all of Leah’s interview with Scott here: Scott Staggenborg, Chromatin

PacificAg Can Help Ethanol Plants Go Cellulosic

pacificag-logoThe largest and most experienced biomass harvest company in the country wants to help ethanol plants develop or expand operations into the production of cellulosic ethanol by saving time and money on supply chain development. PacificAg, which is already supplying biomass for plants in Iowa and Kansas, enables cellulosic biorefineries the ability to source cost-competitive biomass for biofuel and biochemical production.

PacificAg started in the residue management business nearly 20 years ago harvesting forage crops for feed in Oregon and CEO Bill Levy says they have expanded to meet the needs of the growing biofuels industry in the Midwest.

pacificag-harvest“We can save an ethanol plant the time and money in developing a supply chain,” says Levy. “It’s a very specific supply chain with very specific challenges and I think we have a lot of experience overcoming these challenges and developing these supply chains quicker than anybody else.”

Biomass products include corn stover, wheat straw and milo stover products because of their abundance and supply. “What we’ve found in the Midwest is that not all growers are accustomed to removing this supply,” says Levy, stressing that a major component of their suite of services includes a balanced residue management program.

There are two critical elements an ethanol plant must consider when ramping up cellulosic ethanol production: year round biomass supply and sustainability around biomass residue harvest.

Harrison Pettit, a company partner who works with ethanol plants to help them get their biomass programs off the ground, notes that market needs for advanced biofuels industry are long-term and year round. “Ethanol plants are built to operate for more than 30 years.”

How does a grower know if he or she should participate in a biomass residue harvest program? Pettit says the first question to ask is, Are you within 100 miles of a cellulosic ethanol facility? “If you are a corn grower, wheat grower or milo grower, then you really ought to give us a call,” says Pettit. “If you really want to learn about how a residue management program can benefit your ground and benefit your bank account, then we want to talk.”

Learn more about PacificAg and the services they offer for both farmers and ethanol plants in these interviews with Levy and Pettit.
Interview with PacificAg CEO Bill Levy
Interview with PacificAg partner Harrison Pettit

Small Biodiesel Maker Closing Indicative of RFS Problem

yokayo1While the closing of one small biodiesel maker in California might not seem like big news, it’s certainly indicative of the problems facing the industry, big and small producers alike. This story from the Ukiah (CA) Daily Journal says that Yokayo Biofuels, which turned waste cooking oil into biodiesel, has closed.

[Kumar Plocher, Yokayo Biofuels’ CEO] says the biggest reason for their closure was due to a lack of government support both at the state and federal levels. He explains that the carbon credit programs, those where petroleum companies are required to buy a certain amount of renewable fuels, allowed his company to bank carbon credits, normally valued high based on demand. This year state and federal value levels were very low: the state’s due to tampering by global companies that flooded the market and at the federal’s due to the Obama administration and the EPA. “Every year the federal government is supposed to raise the requirement of renewable fuel that should be purchased. At the beginning of 2014, they did not do that; they kept it static. They waited until September to announce a tiny increase, and by that time the damage was done and carbon credits were worthless all year. Every mid-term election year, the dollar per gallon subsidy that goes to biofuels has been absent; they wait until after the election.”

Plocher’s complaint is a common one among advanced biofuel makers and their advocates this year. In fact, at the recent National Advanced Biofuels Conference & Expo, Michael McAdams, founder and president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, said the partnership between the federal government and industry has to have clarity and certainty, but that’s not been the case lately.

“What we haven’t had in the last two years is certainty for the people I represent in the advanced and cellulosic sector,” McAdams said.

Similarly, Bob Dinneen, CEO and president of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), pointed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimates that corn prices will hit an eight-year low because of the government’s failure to follow through on the promises made in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

“Indeed, today’s USDA report should be the closing argument in the debate over the 2014 RFS final rule,” Dinneen continued. “When farmers made their planting decisions for the 2014 season, they anticipated that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House would continue to enforce the statutory RFS volumes. But in one fell swoop, the EPA’s proposed rule wiped away demand for 500 million bushels of corn and grain sorghum. Now, farmers are faced with corn prices below the cost of production and the risk of returning to an era of increased reliance on federal farm program payments.”

There is a little good news in all of this. Plocher was able to sell Yokayo Biofuels’ biodiesel assets to like-minded Simple Fuels.

Pacific Ethanol Gets $3 Mil Grant for Sorghum

Pacific Ethanol logoCalifornia-based Pacific Ethanol, Inc. received a $3 million grant from the California Energy Commission to develop sorghum as a feedstock for ethanol. This company news release says it will work with Chromatin, Inc., CSU Fresno’s Center for Irrigation Technology and the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

This undertaking also includes the California In-State Sorghum Program to support a lasting expansion in California’s ability to produce low-carbon ethanol from in-state feedstock that meets both the renewable fuel and greenhouse gas reduction goals stipulated under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard and California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard.

Neil Koehler, the company’s president and CEO, stated: “We are honored to receive this important grant, which supports Pacific Ethanol’s collaboration with California Agriculture and the other ethanol producers in California toward the long-term development of sorghum feedstock for advanced biofuel production at both our Madera and Stockton California facilities.”

Pacific Ethanol is the leading producer and marketer of low-carbon renewable fuels in the Western United States with four ethanol production facilities capable of producing a total of 200 million gallons each year.

FL Researchers Look to Sweet Sorghum for Ethanol

sweet_sorghumA partnership between a university and a private company is researching using sweet sorghum for ethanol. This story from Ethanol Producer Magazine says U.S. EnviroFuels LLC and the University of Florida could use the technology in the company’s 30 MMgy advanced ethanol plant under construction in Florida.

A research team from the University of Florida was awarded a four-year, $5.4 million USDA grant to study the crop’s potential as an energy source earlier in May. Multiple varieties will be developed and assessed, looking at water consumption needs, growth in Florida soil, heat tolerance and the tolerance to disease and pests. Cellulosic ethanol will also be produced using a genetically engineered bacteria developed at the University of Florida.

The research project is good news for the proposed ethanol plant, which is behind schedule for construction and startup, said Bradley Krohn, president and chief technical officer of U.S. EnviroFuels, founder and project manager of Highlands EnviroFuels LLC. “Any R&D program that develops commercial sweet sorghum hybrids and improves the performance of sweet sorghum from a tonnage and sugar production standpoint will help the ethanol plant project going forward,” he said.

Sugarcane is the usual feedstock for the plant, but the company wants to use the sweet sorghum during sugarcane’s off season.

Pacific Successfully Produces Sorghum Ethanol

Yesterday the EPA announced that grain sorghum is now an official pathway for a renewable fuel under the RFS. Currently, Pacific Ethanol has successfully produced ethanol from sorghum feedstock that was bred by Chromatin. According to Chromatin, this achievement paves the way for future opportunities to use locally grown sorghum as a versatile and resilient crop that is a more energy efficient and lower cost alternative to corn. Due to the positive results, Chromatin plans to expand its sorghum acres in 2013.

R Mussi Farms of Stockton, CA produced 40 acres of sorghum that were harvested and delivered to Pacific Ethanol’s ethanol production plant in Stockton, CA. “We were pleasantly surprised by sorghum’s flexibility. It’s a high-yielding, easy to grow crop regardless of environmental conditions, and it uses less fertilizer and less water than corn,” said Rudy Mussi co-owner of Mussi Farms.

Daphne Preuss, Chromatin’s CEO noted that growers were able to plant and produce high quality sorghum with minimal modifications to their current practices. He also commented that Pacific’s ethanol plants encountered no difficulties when substituting sorghum for corn. Additionally, he said the residue left over after the harvest of sorghum grain can be used as high quality animal feed.

Although sorghum imported from other regions has been used in California ethanol plants in the past, Chromatin’s program is the first instance of supplying locally grown grain to the Pacific Ethanol plant in Stockton, CA. Initial results show greater cost efficiency and an improved carbon footprint.

“During the third quarter, Pacific Ethanol used sorghum for approximately 30 percent of the feedstock at our Stockton plant,” added Neil Koehler, CEO of Pacific Ethanol. Blended with corn, sorghum has similar conversion properties to corn and produces even lower carbon ethanol.”

EPA Approves RFS Path for Grain Sorghum

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just announced it’s approval of grain sorghum as an approved pathway for a renewable fuel as part of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). According to EPA, ethanol produced from grain sorghum emits 32 percent less greenhouse gas than the baseline petroleum it replaces and uses one-third less water than some other biofuel feedstocks.

The EPA report states: “EPA’s analysis indicates that ethanol made from grain sorghum at dry mill facilities that use natural gas for process energy meets the lifecycle GHG emissions reduction threshold of 20% compared to the  baseline petroleum fuel it would replace, and therefore qualifies as a renewable fuel. It also contains our regulatory determination that  grain sorghum ethanol produced at dry mill facilities using specified forms of biogas for both process energy and most electricity production, has lifecycle GHG emission reductions of more than 50% compared to the baseline petroleum fuel it would replace, and that such grain sorghum ethanol qualifies as an advanced biofuel under the RFS program.

Bill Kubecka, chairman of the Sorghum Checkoff and a sorghum producer from Palacios, Texas said, “This is a significant step forward for the sorghum industry. This pathway for grain sorghum will make sorghum a more profitable biofuel feedstock for the renewables industry, thus increasing the value and demand for sorghum.”

The EPA’s ruling further affirms the Sorghum Checkoff’s belief that grain sorghum is a feedstock perfectly suited for starch-based ethanol production.

“We believe this new opportunity to produce advanced biofuel will increase demand for the crop and lead to greater profitability for producers across the nation,” added Sorghum Checkoff Renewables Director, John Duff. “Furthermore, it gives us great pride that these producers will play a key role in supplying homegrown advanced biofuel, and we look forward to supporting them in these efforts going forward.”

World Grain Buyers Get US Producer Perspectives

Grain buyers from around the world in attendance at the 2012 Export Exchange had the opportunity to embrace the US producers perspective on the 2012 crop through a producer panel during the opening general session. Key panelists were Ron Gray, Illinois farmer and Secretary/Treasurer of the US Grains Council, and John Mages, Minnesota farmer and Chairman of the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

They shared their personal experiences overcoming the 2012 drought and assured buyers of their fight and passion to raise a consistent and quality product.

Listen to the entire Producers Panel here: Producer Panel at Export Exchange

Following the opening session I took the time to talk with Ron Gray, where he summed up the 2012 corn crop and how farming for him is more than a job, its a personal endeavor.

“For us the 2012 crop started out with all the hope of an extraordinary crop. We planted early, the crop went in very well, emergence was good. Then it didn’t rain. Beginning the second week of May through the first week of August we only had about three inches of total rainfall and because of that our corn crop was severely reduced in production. Our farm probably averaged 50 bushels an acre, which is approximately 1/3 of our normal production. The rainfall did come later and the soybean crop is a fairly good crop, but the corn crop was devastated.”

Listen to my interview with Ron here: Ron Gray Interview

Beyond simply listening to producers, international grain buyers had the opportunity to visit farms across the United States. The goal was to gain information, assess the current US corn crop, explore the availability of other grains such as sorghum and barley, and build relationships leading to future sales.

Many participants expressed a preference for buying US grains due to the consistency and quality of the grain. They also appreciate the transparency and reliability of the US marketing and delivery systems. Clearly price and availability hindered US exports this year, but buyers are looking forward to a better crop next year.

You can find photos from this years Export Exchange here: 2012 Export Exchange

Industry Launches “Fuels America” Campaign

In the face of increasing calls to waive the nation’s Renewable Fuel Standard, biofuel industry stakeholders today announced a major new communications campaign to educate consumers and policy makers about the benefits of renewable fuel to America’s economy, energy security and environment.

The new coalition – Fuels America – includes renewable fuel, national security, renewable energy and other stakeholders. Among those who are part of the coalition are Growth Energy, the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and the Advanced Ethanol Council (AEC). A number of biofuel companies are also members, such as Abengoa, DuPont, POET and Novozymes.

The Fuels America campaign will be a national effort, including advertising, beginning in Washington, DC and several states, including Colorado, Ohio, Delaware and Montana. Each state will have its own online platform reachable through FuelsAmerica.org and feature the stories of renewable fuel innovators and communities with a stake in maintaining the RFS. The coalition also has a Twitter feed @FuelsAmerica.

A telephone press conference was held this morning to announce the new coalition and campaign with BIO president and CEO Jim Greenwood, Novozymes president Adam Monroe, Marion (Ohio) Chamber of Commerce president Pam Hall, and ZeaChem president and CEO Jim Imbler.

Listen to or download that press conference, which starts with comments from Jim Greenwood: Fuels America press conference

Press conference Q and A: Fuels America press conference Q&A

Sweet Sorghum Leading Southern Bioenergy Crop

A lot of research has gone into studying sweet sorghum’s potential as a bioenergy crop. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has found that there are several attributes of the feedstock that make it uniquely suited to produce biofuels. One assest is its lower need for water, making it an ideal crop to grow in drought prevalent areas. In addition, it has low nitrogen fertilizer requirements and high biomass content. This according to molecular biologist Scott Sattler and Jeff Pedersen with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

Sweet sorghum produces sugar that can be converted to biofuel. The fibers in the feedstock left over after the juice is extracted can be burned to create electricity. Sorghum and sugarcane are good crops for the southeastern part of the U.S. because they are complementary crops and can extend the biofuel production season. Both feedstocks also use the same equipment so a grower would not need to invest in new technology to plant or harvest either crop.

The sweet sorghum research is part of USDA’s work in studying biofuel crops to meet the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) mandate of 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. Of this total, 21 billion gallons will come from sources other than grain-based ethanol, of which sweet sorghum is one possible feedstock.

Other teams are also studying sweet sorghum including a group led by geneticist William Anderson with the ARS Crop Genetics and Breeding Research Unit in Tifton, Georgia. This team is working on identifying desirable bioenergy genes and working on improving them. To date, the team has studied 117 genotypes from the ARS sorghum germplasm collection with more research underway.

New Sorghum Renewables Program Director Named

John Duff has been named renewables program director for The United Sorghum Checkoff Program (USCP).
Duff, a native of Levelland, Texas, has previously served as an intern for U.S. Representatives Randy Neugebauer and Kevin Brady, as well as with Combest, Sell and Associates. Duff also held an internship for USDA’s Economic Research Service where he managed data on a project examining the impacts of bilateral free trade agreements on agricultural trade.

Duff’s family farms near Levelland and remains involved in Levelland/Hockley County Ethanol LLC.

“Renewables have become a valuable sector of the sorghum industry,” said Bill Greving, USCP board member and chair of the Renewables Committee. “John’s leadership as renewables director will help create more opportunities for producers as this program moves forward. John will be a great asset to the Sorghum Checkoff as he brings with him a good deal of experience in working within the industry.”

First Sorghum Renewables Summit This Month

The Sorghum Checkoff is hosting the first ever Sorghum Renewables Summit April 19-20 in Denver.

SorghumThe summit will bring together the industry’s leading researchers and companies for an event focused on agronomics, composition, technology, corporate governance and more related to using sorghum as a feedstock for renewable fuels.

National Sorghum Producers chairman Terry Swanson, a grower from Colorado, says about one third of the sorghum crop is now used to make ethanol. “Biofuels are very important to us,” said Swanson. “We are helping with the security of our country.”

The event will include a number of speakers and panels as well as a tour of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado on April 19.

Get more information about the 2012 Sorghum Renewables Summit on the Sorghum Checkoff website.

Sorghum for Ethanol Increases

Early March is an important time for the agricultural industry when they come together for Commodity Classic. With the challenges facing both the ag and energy industries, which go hand-in-hand, Terry Swanson, Chairman of the National Sorghum Producers said, “We have to be unified.”

When compared to other commodities used to produce biofuels, sorghum growers are a relatively small group. Today, about one third of the sorghum crop is used to make ethanol. However, the industry is hoping to see that number grow. For this to happen, Swanson said they need to speak with one voice.

Swanson, who is a grower in Colorado, said that biofuels and the issues surrounding them, including the RFS, are very important. The RFS is the major driver of increased ethanol use in the U.S. today.

To learn more about sorghum and ethanol, listen to Chuck Zimmerman’s interview with Terry Swanson. Interview with Terry Swanson