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VOL. 126 | NO. 212 | Monday, October 31, 2011

Crop and Go

Memphis company turning sweet sorghum into biofuels

By Bill Dries

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Take agriculture machinery from the sugar cane and cotton industries.

Michael Gong of Delta BioRenewables shows a modular ethanol still during a field day program about harvesting, producing and processing sweet sorghum at a biorefinery in Whiteville.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Add genetics from cotton, corn and soybean seed companies. Mix with some proprietary technology built around what looks like a still and you have the recipe for the rise of sweet sorghum as an element in making biofuels.

In a field in Whiteville, about an hour away in Hardeman County, the stalks of sorghum are rising to about 12 feet after being planted in June by BioDimensions Inc. as the latest crop in a three-year experiment that will expand to 500 acres next year and go fully commercial in 2013.

BioDimensions, the parent of Delta BioRenewables, is a company with backing from the Memphis Bioworks Foundation in Memphis that blends urban and rural.

The companies were founded by Memphian Maury Radin, best known for his leadership of the Memphis-area Manpower Employment Services franchise, and Pete Nelson, a Hardeman County farmer turned author, researcher and consultant to businesses on the bio-based economy.

“We’ve been interested in alternative crops over the last 15 years,” Nelson said. “What can we grow here to give farmers additional income and rotate with our current crops?”

Radin also wanted to avoid contributing further to the commoditization of corn, in particular, or any other dominant food source as a biofuel source.

“Using corn to make fuel just didn’t work. Using soybeans to make diesel fuel, likewise didn’t work because you were using food and feed crops to make industrial products,” Radin said. “That set up a conflict between food and feed and fuel.”

Sweet sorghum and the industrial inedible sugar it produces was the answer.

“Simple sugars can be used as the essential building blocks in a lot of different materials like green chemicals and plastics and just a number of different areas,” Radin said. “In looking for crops that did not compete with food or feed, we came across sweet sorghum, which was kind of a niche crop. Usually it is for pancake syrup.”

With his contacts from his time as a farmer, Nelson approached Willie German Jr. in Whiteville.

“We did not gin cotton here anymore. We sold out to a bigger gin that had bigger warehouses,” German said. “I didn’t want to grow just cotton anymore like we used to do. So when the corn and soybean prices started running and cotton prices were still low a lot of the smaller gins shut down and joined up with bigger gins.”

Sweet sorghum is harvested during a field day near the BioDimensions and Delta BioRenewables biorefinery in Whiteville.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

German turned over a cotton gin he was using for storage and some acreage.

“Not for money but just because it’s something good that we all need to be concerned about,” he said. “Our rural economies need these types of businesses in their areas. We need options because corns and beans won’t always be as high as they are now. Even now, cotton is coming back.”

But German’s neighbors have taken notice in the last three years, especially at the 12-foot stalks that grow without irrigation.

“They’ve seen how resilient this sorghum is,” he said after a long hot summer. “This is the only thing, when you drive by, that’s not wilted down and dying in those hard days. It just kind of goes dormant and then it comes back to life again.”

The Advanced Rural Biorefinery and its product have two customers for now and a good part of what BioDimensions and Delta BioRenewables provide to them including their methods for preparing the syrup and other liquids are proprietary. There were some questions the staff declined to answer about the process during two field days in Whiteville earlier this month.

“A still would be the mountain term,” Michael Gong said as visitors eyed a large steel fermenter with a telltale coil.

Among those leading the walk through the refinery to see the process was Gillian Eggleston, lead scientist at the Southern Regional Research Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a chemist who has worked and researched extensively in the U.S. sugarcane industry.

Program manager Randy Powell is a former vice president of performance chemicals manufacturing for Eastman Chemical Co. and has a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry.

Powell agreed with one observer who called the Whiteville operation “the world’s largest science fair project.” But Powell’s work has been in not only theory but the commercialization of biodiesel and fuel pellets during his time at Eastman.

“We’re going to see a wave of new products as petroleum prices go up,” he said during the second of the two field days this month that drew a group of 50 to the refinery and fields. “This has huge potential for economic development in rural communities. Plants will have to be close to the fields.”

That is because the sugar produced with sorghum can begin to change almost immediately after it is harvested depending on weather conditions and temperature.

“A lot of the processing part comes from the sugar cane engineering,” Nelson said of the processes from other areas of agriculture. “The genetics – the seed – is being borrowed from the same companies that developed traits for corn and cotton and soybeans. It’s all top of the line breeding now going into sweet sorghum. That’s a big difference from a decade ago. We’re getting very good varieties. … The end users, unlike edible sugar, are these folks that are developing these proprietary microbes that are going into jet fuels, tires, all of these kinds of products.”

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