Creating Biofuel from Sweet Sorghum
Traditionally, corn has been the biofuel crop of choice, but sweet sorghum is a much more versatile plant. Not only is it extremely drought tolerant, but as Christopher DeMorro, site director at Gas 2.0, an alternative energy Web site, points out, "What makes it really interesting is that sweet sorghum can be grown in a wide variety of temperate and tropical areas." That versatility and its drought tolerance mean that farmers are starting to plant more sweet sorghum, especially for ethanol and biodiesel production.
Sweet sorghum is poised to become a major feedstock for creating ethanol. Farmers already grow sweet sorghum for ethanol production, but Kansas company Western Plains Energy LLC is planning to mass produce advanced ethanol from sweet sorghum by the end of 2012 [source: Nicholson]. Producing regular ethanol produces greenhouse gas emissions. Advanced ethanol reduces that environmental impact considerably, so this breakthrough could mean a boost in production for sweet sorghum-based ethanol [source: Nicholson].
Producing biodiesel -- as opposed to ethanol -- from sweet sorghum is an even more recent development. In May 2012 Biofuel company Amyris announced results from a successful pilot program using sweet sorghum [source: Schroeder]. The big advantage over ethanol, DeMorro says is that any diesel car can run biodiesel with minimal modifications. "Usually it involves a special heating tank to make the biodiesel more fluid, unlike ethanol which requires an engine specifically built to accommodate it and even then usually needs to be mixed with regular gasoline."
As gas prices continue to rise, biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel are becoming more attractive, and finding new crops to produce biodiesel is going to be critical to our energy future. The main reason that we've relied so heavily on corn for biofuel in the U.S. is that thanks to subsidies and other government incentives we were already growing so much of it [source: Nicholson]. What makes sweet sorghum even more attractive than corn for producing biofuels is that it answers some of the controversial questions surrounding biofuel production and its social and environmental impacts.