Alternative fuels debate rises along with gas prices

Sorghum ” a low-maintenance, drought-resistant, cane-like grass that was known throughout Dixie for the syrup it could produce ” is again poised as a crop that could deliver sweet profits to state farmers, according to professor Ray Huhnke, a biofuels research team leader at Oklahoma State University.

As fuel prices rise, so does the opportunity for Oklahoma farmers to make a profit, he said.

“A farmer could be producing energy on his farm that would be marketable,” Huhnke said. “He could go a long way as far as doing much of the processing ” although maybe not the final clarification and distillation ” of producing some of the (profit) margin there may be in producing ethanol.”

Using equipment developed by OSU-related research, a farmer could process the sorghum onsite, increasing his or her profits substantially, and transport the partially refined product.

“Due to seasonal production, it may be more cost effective to convert juice to ethanol on-farm rather than transport the entire crop to a central processing plant,” according to a recent paper from OSU. “Assuming an average yield of 25 tons/acre, a juice expression ratio of 0.65, and an average sugar content of 15 (percent), the ethanol production would be about 333 gallons ethanol per acre.”

However, a long-term target for Oklahoma bio-energy research is the buzzword that made it into the president’s State of the Union speech: switchgrass.

Switchgrass is a prairie plant that would otherwise be a weed. It grows in areas that are unsuitable for crops and has a large potential as a renewable source of ethanol, according to Huhnke, but it requires a more complicated process to convert into fuel.

Switchgrass is also high-yield compared to the current alternative fuel crop of choice: corn. OSU research indicates that farmers have to use a gallon of gasoline for every 1.7 gallons of ethanol produced from corn ” a marginal amount when compared with other crops, and the process uses a valuable food product.

Switchgrass, on the other hand, yields 3 gallons for every gallon produced. Although the process is still in the lab, OSU has developed a method and even organisms to digest the grasses and produce ethanol. “Ben Fenwick

Ben Fenwick

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