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Sweet Sorghum

While it will take untold billions to build America's alternative energy infrastructure, the answer for some may be a lot closer to home and a whole lot less expensive.

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Converting Sweet Sorghum into Ethanol

Show Dates

Show 0848: Sweet Sorghum

Air date: November 30, 2008



Rob:  While it will take untold billions to build America’s alternative energy infrastructure, the answer for some may be a lot closer to home and a whole lot less expensive.  Our Russ Jowell explains.

Russ:  There’s been lots of talk about biofuels lately.  Ethanol is the undisputed king of the biofuel world, and corn is the undisputed king of ethanol.  Or is it?

Dani Bellmer:  You know we can certainly compete with corn ethanol.  And in terms of process inputs and process costs, I’m fairly certain that we could beat it.

Russ:  Dr. Dani Bellmer and her team of OSU scientists are trying to dethrone the mighty cob’s rule over ethanol, hoping instead to try a much sweeter solution.

Ray Huhnke:   That’s sweet sorghum juice, somewhere around 15%, sugar that can be converted to ethanol.  We have 20 acres of sweet sorghum at the south central research station in Chickasha.  And what we wanted to do is demonstrate the possibility of converting sweet sorghum juice into ethanol.

Russ:  Ray Huhnke is the director of OSU’s Bio Based Products and Energy Center, and says that sweet sorghum juice is an ideal substance for the production of ethanol.

Huhnke:   We feel that sweet sorghum has advantages of its low fertility requirements as well as low water requirements to maintain a viable crop.  It’s a type of plant that you can extract the juice very relatively easy and then ferment it, even easier than most any other process.

Russ:  A process that Dr. Bellmer and her team are working to make even easier with the use of this towable device.

Bellmer:  Two or three years ago Lee McClune came into our center, the Food and Agricultural Products Center, with the idea of wanting to use sweet sorghum for ethanol.  He had this prototype harvester that he wanted us to look at and evaluate.  So we began, at that point, to look at the whole process.  And what it has evolved into is an infield process.

Russ:  Which means the juice is squeezed right from the cane the minute it is harvested.

Bellmer:  You get liquid sugar in the stalk of the crop that can simply be pressed, and then fermented into ethanol.  So you don’t have starch to convert, like you do with corn.  You don’t have cellulose to break down.  You simply have to press the stalk, and you get liquid sugar.

James Whitley:  They’ve known how to separate ethanol and water since the beginning of time.

Russ:  OSU chemistry professor Rob Whitley says that while turning sugar into ethanol is an age old process, making that process commercially viable for farmers will require modern day technology.

Whitley:  We envision this would be two distillation columns that are normally one foot in diameter by about 30 feet tall, and they have material inside them to help perform the separation.  So you would see two, tall cylindrical vessels, and a couple of pumps, and a couple of small heat exchangers, and some storage tanks.

Russ:  Completing the cycle of fuel to energize the Oklahoma economy.

Bellmer:  It’s basically the potential to have a nice stream of income that’s dependable.  In addition, producing your own source of energy, so you would not be relying on an external source of energy.