Sorghum's Potential as a Bioenergy Crop
Biofuels are mostly produced from grains such as corn. In recent years, various types of wild grasses and other crops have been looked at to produce biofuels, but have yet to break through in a big way. A new study by the United States Department of Agriculture has uncovered a potential breakthrough candidate for biofuel expansion. It is sorghum, a grassy plant grown primarily in the southeastern United States as a source of sugar for syrup and molasses. Its sturdiness and resistance to drought make it ideal for the production of bioenergy.
Sorghum has a lot of advantages in that it is adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions and needs low nitrogen fertilizer requirements. According to USDA researchers, it also has a high biomass content (plant material). The soluble sugar that it produces can be converted into biofuel, and then the residual fibers leftover from the juice extraction can be burned to generate electricity.
This USDA study is part of a larger effort to meet the government mandate to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. It is estimated that 15 billion of those gallons will be from grain ethanol, and the remaining 21 billion will be from other sources including sorghum, sugarcane, switchgrass, and other grasses. Other crops for biofuels include oilseed crops like rapeseed and soybean.
In the southeast, sorghum and sugarcane are believed to be the top candidates for several reasons. They grow naturally in the southeastern climate. They also make excellent complementary crops that can extend the biofuel production season using the same equipment.
In an era of changing climate, it is important to keep a wide range of options for use in biofuel production. It is conceivable that summers like the one recently experienced in the United States will become more commonplace. The drought across the Midwestern states caused serious damage to major grain crops like corn, which is widely used for biofuels.
Increasing biofuel production to other parts of the country like the southeast using various crops such as sorghum can protect the biofuel and grain market going into the future. In case one region underperforms in its production, the other may be able to pick up the slack.
The USDA research on Sorghum's potential as a biofuel has been published in the journal, Agricultural Research.
Sorghum image via Shutterstock