Testing Switchgrass, Sorghum For Biofuels

Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. will trial improved switchgrass cultivars and high-biomass sorghum hybrids with Range Fuels, Inc. to learn more about using these sources in the production of cellulosic biofuels.

The project is part of a cooperative field trialing program at the site of Range Fuels’ commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant, now under construction near Soperton, GA, about 150 miles southeast of Atlanta.

While wood residues will be the primary feedstock for this first-of-a-kind biorefinery, Ceres says that Range Fuels is also interested in better understanding the economic, environmental, and logistical attributes of non-food, low-carbon grass species in the production of cellulosic biofuels. These grass species have a number of advantages: they have relatively rapid breeding cycles, they are highly efficient at storing sunlight in the form of carbohydrates, and they are widely adapted. Last spring, Ceres provided seed of new, high-yielding varieties that was planted in demonstration plots on Range Fuels’ Soperton Plant site. The crops will be assessed for several years.

"As we think about expanding production beyond our Soperton Plant, which will use woody biomass, we need to start understanding how a variety of high-yield, minimal impact biomass feedstocks, such as those being explored by Ceres, can assist in our expansion efforts,” says Mitch Mandich, Range Fuels CEO. “Our relationship with Ceres will be invaluable in this process."

Ceres recently announced that it will commercialize its first seed varieties under the trade name Blade Energy Crops. Anna Rath, Ceres vice president of commercial development, explains that the company will begin booking seed orders this fall for the 2009 growing season. "We are getting calls from agricultural producers interested in putting 10 or 20 acres in the ground to gain a better understanding of these crops. Some are located near existing or planned biorefineries, while others are looking to attract biorefineries to their area," she says. Rath notes that grass crops appear to be well suited to both thermochemical conversion systems as well as biochemical processes that utilize enzymes in the production of biofuels.

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