The Memphis biomass start-up that has focused on developing sweet sorghum as a fuel now has a financial partner who believes in the future of ethanol as a fuel.
Michael Gong of Delta BioRenewables pours ethanol from a modular ethanol still. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
BioDimensions Delta BioRenewables LLC recently moved to Agricenter International from the Whiteville, Tenn., cotton gin that has been home to the three-year-old undertaking.
The move came when BioDimensions teamed with EPEC, a Plantation, Fla.-based development company led by financial minds with lots of experience in the alternative energy sources saga.
“It was very helpful to be in Whiteville because of the existing cotton gin we were working from,” said Maury Radin, a cofounder of BioDimensions. “It was very cost effective. However, it was 50 miles from here. While we are working on rural businesses, we needed to be conveniently located to reserve our resources.”
EPEC’s belief about where the future is can be found in the letters of the company name. They stand for Ethanol Producing Energy Cos.
“They’re more focused on the sugar and possible other uses for sugar other than ethanol,” EPEC president and CEO Ronald H. Miller said of BioDimensions last month shortly after the move to Agricenter was announced.
BioDimensions sorghum is growing in the July heat at Agricenter as the same heat and drought conditions are destroying what’s left of the corn crop.
While corn and ethanol are synonymous, Miller is a veteran of a field with plenty of history with other kinds of ethanol. It is a good and a bad history in terms of results.
“It’s an industry somewhat starved for capital,” Miller said. “We spent billions of dollars on cellulastic ethanol (made from leaves, wood chips, branches and similar material) and wind and some solar and not spent much on this area.”
At this stage in alternative energy development, Miller says realism and experience overrule wide-eyed nonspecific wondering about the broad possibilities of something other than petroleum.
“It was very helpful to be in Whiteville because of the existing cotton gin. ... (But) we needed to be conveniently located to reserve our resources.”
–Maury Radin, Cofounder of BioDimensions
“Quite frankly, capital has been burned, I think, with alternatives. We’ve seen Solyndra,” he added, dropping the name of the scandal-plagued California solar manufacturer that benefited from a loan guaranteed by the federal government.
Solyndra got a $535 million loan guarantee to make solar panels without polysilicon but by the time it had the financing, the price of polysilicon was already dropping. There were other issues with how the money was used leading to Solyndra’s 2011 bankruptcy filing.
“We’ve seen other areas where they invested in cellulostic ethanol. That hasn’t turned out yet to be that productive,” Miller said. “The thing I like about sweet sorghum is you are starting with sugar and it’s easier to convert than corn starch. We don’t have to have a big technological breakthrough to be successful. … I think we are much more stable. I think that capital is going to have to get over its recent history on green energy-type investments and be willing to invest in something where the technology works.”
For Miller, gas prices, whose rise has prompted more interest in biofuels and whose drop has prompted a lack of interest in biofuels, isn’t as critical as making the alternative technology work and work at an affordable price.
“It’s more of do you have the right technology. There are technology risks. We have a certain degree of market risk in will you get the farmers to plant,” he said. “I think those are the bigger issues than the oil markets. Quite fundamentally I think we have seen the tipping point in energy costs. … I’m not so much worried about oil prices. I am trying to make sure that we are competitive with alternative energy.”
Miller, who has worked in linking capital to alternative energy since the fallout from the 1970s Arab oil embargo pointed the pursuit to ethanol, said BioDimensions has moved the bar on technology in the last three years with a better yield per acre and a more inexpensive way of processing the sorghum.
Sorghum can change rapidly over time. BioDimensions, for that reason, has emphasized keeping production and processing close to the fields.