Companies advance sweet sorghum as ethanol feedstock in Brazil

By Holly Jessen | November 28, 2012

For the past two years, Ceres Inc., an energy crop company, has been proving the viability of using of sweet sorghum as an ethanol feedstock, extending ethanol production during the months sugarcane isn’t actively harvested. The company is now working with more than 20 ethanol and sugar mills, up from 14 last year. “It’s what we describe as a drop-in feedstock,” said Gary Koppenjan, spokesperson for Ceres. “It doesn’t require any investments in infrastructure or large changes in operational activities.”

In Brazil, sugarcane grows year round, but it’s harvested only 180 to 200 days a year. Sweet sorghum can be grown on fallow sugarcane land and requires less water and other inputs, due to a 90 to 120 day growing season. By growing sweet sorghum, sugarcane mills can extend the ethanol production season by up to 60 days. Although sugarcane can be converted to sugar or ethanol, sweet sorghum is ideal for dedicated ethanol production, Koppenjan told Ethanol Producer Magazine. In addition, the feedstock can be processed alone or at the same time as sugarcane. “You can load it into the same bins, you can harvest it with the same harvester, you run it through the same facility,” he added.

On Nov. 26 Ceres announced its Brazilian subsidiary, Ceres Sementes do Brasil Ltda., had signed a market development agreement with Syngenta. The goal is for the two companies to work together to introduce sweet sorghum as an ethanol feedstock to Brazil’s 400 or more mills, including by developing training programs for the mills. Ceres and Syngenta will collaborate on both small-scale and demonstration-scale field trials this season, with Syngenta evaluating its crop protection products for use with Ceres sweet sorghum hybrids and Ceres providing seed stock and research support.

Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol industry has struggled to meet increased demand in recent years, due to a variety of factors. Ceres pointed to a recent announcement from the Brazilian government, which identified sweet sorghum as a strategic crop for the 2012-’13 annual agricultural plan. Although he declined to provide “forward looking guidance” on how quickly sweet sorghum might be able to start adding significantly to ethanol production in Brazil, Koppenjan said any technology with the potential for positive financial impact on the bottom line of stakeholders, such as growers and ethanol mills, has been quickly accepted, historically. “We believe that once we demonstrate profitably both in the field and in the industrial side, that adoption will be rapid,” he said.

Monsanto Co. also said in 2011 that it was also providing sweet sorghum seed in Brazil.