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Greener Pastures For BioFuel

Ethanol Makers Want Sorghum As Feedstock,Look To Capture More Co-Products

Aemetis ethanol plant in Keyes 

Looking to wean themselves from corn, California’s ethanol makers are gearing up to use more grain sorghum to make low carbon biofuel and get paid more handsomely for it. Also, looking for profitability – a number of the ethanol companies are adding on-site production plants to capture more co-products that are part of the ethanol distilling process.
On January 15 biofuel company Aemetis idled its 60 million gallon plant near Modesto joining scores of ethanol plants in the Midwest who have shut down at least for a period because of the high price of corn.The industry’s trade group, the Renewable Fuels Association, tells the Associated Press that 20 out of 211 U.S. ethanol plants have halted production over the past 12 months  -including five in January.
But Aemetis announced hope for a greener path a few days ago  saying that it had agreed to contract with local farmers to plant seed sold  by Chicago-based Chromatin for 30,000 acres of hybrid grain sorghum to be used to make ethanol starting this summer.
In a second major announcement February 18 Chromatin and Pacific Ethanol announced a similar agreement to contract with local farmers to plant 30,000 acres of sorghum near their Stockton plant.
“As the benefits of sorghum become more widely known, especially its resiliency, flexibility and its affordability compared to corn, we are optimistic that it will become the feedstock of choice in ethanol production” says Chromatin Chief Executive Officer Daphne Preuss.
“We are pleased to extend our collaboration with Pacific Ethanol, which previously confirmed that locally-grown sorghum is well-suited to ethanol production. We also welcome the opportunity to provide crop producers in California with a new market for their products by providing sorghum feedstocks that serve as an economical and energy efficient source of biofuel.”
“We have taken initiatives to diversify our feedstock base and further reduce the carbon profile of our ethanol. Our agreement with Chromatin represents one of these important initiatives and will help California farmers to produce sorghum for production of low carbon ethanol and high value animal feed,” said Neil Koehler, CEO of Pacific Ethanol.
Pacific Ethanol and Aemetis are not alone.
Tulare County’s Calgren Renewable Fuels has contracted for about 10,000 acres of sorghum this fall and 30,000 acres over multiple years  to decrease the train loads of corn shipped in from the Midwest this year and after says Lyle Schlyer president of Calgren. Chromatin is the seed supplier as well. Calgren did a test run to make ethanol from  sorghum last year that worked out fine says Schlyer.
Air Liquide Plant
Also in Pixley Calgren has contracted with industrial gas provider Air Liquide to build a multi-million dollar CO2 plant that will help Calgren to demonstrate that it it has captured CO2 emissions that would otherwise contribute to global warming.Carbon dioxide is part of the  fermentation process and all California industry is now mandated to cut  CO2 emissions or pay into a cap and trade program. With the new plant in place the carbon dioxide is cleaned of any residual alcohol, compressed, and sold to other industries for carbonate beverages, or as a coolant in the food industry to name a few uses. Calgren’s neighbor California Dairies uses CO2 as a coolant. The rule of thumb is one pound of CO2 for every pound of produced ethanol (6.5 pounds per gallon).Schyler says the Pixley facility will be the first CO2 plant in the valley.  French-owned Air Liquide who helped build the Calgren plant has said they expect to issue a press release soon on the project
Pacific Ethanol is also adding a corn oil extraction plant at their Stockton facility looking for more ways to boost their income.Corn oil is already captured at the Pixley Calgren plant.Of course the most important co-product from California ethanol plants is wet distillers grain used to feed millions of nearby cows
Advanced Fuel
Shifting some ethanol production from corn to sorghum will please livestock critics of  ethanol in California who have done a full court press both in the state and nationally to try to defund all corn ethnaol incentives that they say have helped drive up their feed costs.
With the agreement of the EPA grain sorghum as a substitute will qualify as an ”advanced biofuel” with half the lifecycle greenhouse-gas emissions of gasoline. U.S. gasoline and diesel producers are mandated to blend 2.75 billion gallons of advanced biofuels with their products in 2013 along with the 16.6 billion-gallons of biofuel that are corn-based.
Chromatin is currently working with California growers who are attracted to sorghum as a grain source because it is easy to grow, uses less fertilizer and water than corn and is tolerant to both heat and drought conditions. It is also an effective double crop alternative behind wheat or in rotation with cotton and vegetable crops. In addition, the residue from the harvest of sorghum grain can be used as high quality animal feed.
In the south Valley sorghum is being planted on more marginal lands with little or no irrigation but its success  will depend on rainfall.
Ethanol plants in California have been seeking alternative crops to corn to reduce feedstock costs, to improve their carbon footprint and to source feedstock from locally grown energy-efficient crops. California-grown sorghum has proven to be cost effective and energy efficient, and using sorghum grain enables ethanol producers to qualify as Advanced Bio-fuel Producers and become eligible for financial incentives.
Just having their feedstock grown locally instead of sent by diesel powered unit trains across the country will help California ethanol makers show a greener footprint.That in turn will translate  into preferred sales in California in coming years according to new state rules.
Advocates say sorghum uses from a third to half the water of corn, needs less nitrogen to produce the same yield, and has greater salt tolerance.
Sorghum has not been a big crop in California with much larger plantings in Texas and Oklahoma. Just 45,000 acres was planted in California in 2008 ,which is the latest period we have records.
Between these three ethanol makers alone, that could jump to 90,000 acres.

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