I was at an ethanol conference a couple of years ago, and one of the presentations included a picture of the fermenters in Gulf Oil’s cellulosic ethanol pilot plant. This seemed odd, as I didn’t think Gulf Oil had been in the energy production business since the ’80s. Then I saw the year the shot was taken: 1976.
About a year later, I was at another ethanol conference where I saw a picture of a newspaper article from 1983. The headline trumpeted the now-infamous line: “Cellulosic ethanol only five years away.” The headline was wrong. But so are the naysayers using that line against the industry today. In fact, they’re now behind. Way behind.
Almost a year ago, Poet-DSM (a joint venture between U.S. ethanol producer Poet and Dutch life sciences company DSM) held a star-studded grand opening ceremony for its long-awaited Project Liberty cellulosic ethanol plant in northern Iowa. The event was such a big deal even King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands showed up. Abengoa was hot on Poet’s heels, holding its own ceremony in Hugoton about a month later. Cellulosic ethanol isn’t five years away anymore. Cellulosic ethanol is here.
Back to sorghum
But what does this have to do with sorghum? Last month I kicked off my monthly column with a piece on the forage side of sorghum. Forage is becoming a huge part of the sorghum industry, and our seed companies are exploiting the crop’s genetic diversity to take biomass production to the next level. The next level in height, that is. A cellulose-producing sorghum plant that grows 20 feet tall is valuable to the cellulosic ethanol industry for obvious reasons. More height means more tons, and more tons mean more gallons.
Right now, Poet and Abengoa are focused primarily on residues like cobs, straw and stover. DuPont will come on-line in Iowa soon as well, with a similar feedstock program. This makes a lot of sense as residues are plentiful, but residues are just the beginning for this new industry.
In cellulosic ethanol circles, high biomass sorghum is known as an energy crop. Because it is an annual with genetic predecessors that have been grown by most producers at some point, high-biomass sorghum is a leader among these crops. None other can be grown in as many geographic regions or agronomic systems, none other has such a well-established seed industry, and none other is as genetically diverse.
Sure, policy plays an out-sized role in the renewables space, and the cellulosic ethanol industry, in particular, has relied on extensive public support while working to overcome its broad technological challenges. But feedstocks that reach heights of 20 feet will make the cellulosic ethanol industry cost-competitive on volume alone, and ethanol will be the cheapest octane source on the planet for years to come.
Rest assured future high-biomass sorghum producers: There will be a home for your product.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Policy is important in this industry, and you should have a good grasp of the overarching themes for strategic planning purposes. In next month’s column, I’ll break down the Renewable Fuel Standard and explain what it means for sorghum. The Final Rule was 236 pages long, and the Regulatory Impact Analysis was 1,120 pages long. Stay tuned. I don’t want all that reading to be for naught.
Chris's columns appear in Kansas Farmer magazine monthly. You can view this column published in the online edition here.