CHICKASHA, Okla. (AP) — With demand growing for ethanol produced from sources other than corn, researchers at Oklahoma State University said Wednesday that state agriculture producers could someday grow sweet sorghum or switchgrass as cash crops.
Division scientists and engineers from OSU's Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources spoke during a "biofuels field day" at the university's South Central Research Station in Chickasha about the potential of crops that could be grown by Oklahoma farmers for use in ethanol production.
Little sweet sorghum is grown in Oklahoma because there hasn't been much need for it, said Danielle Bellmer, a food process engineer at OSU's Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center who talked enthusiastically Wednesday about the plant's potential as a renewable energy crop.
The interest in such crops stems in part from the nation's renewable fuel standard, which ensures demand for ethanol. In 2007, the Energy and Independence Security Act passed by Congress called for 11.1 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline this year, with that number rising to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
That standard caps the amount of ethanol levels that can be met from corn at 15 billion gallons in 2015.
Sweet sorghum, which Bellmer said traditionally has been grown in southeastern states like Kentucky and Tennessee for syrup, can be cultivated in nearly every climate found in Oklahoma. The plant can be pressed to extract a juice that can be taken directly into the fermentation and distillation process to produce ethanol.
"To make ethanol, it's as easy as it gets," she said.
But that ease of production is also the plant's biggest downfall, Bellmer said, because the liquid sugar it produces has a short shelf life — less than 36 hours — and cannot be stored, which means it must be processed almost immediately.
One potential solution is to have agriculture producers handle processing on their farms; such technology is in its developmental stages, but it shows promise, she said.
"Decentralized processing could be the way to go," she said. "The goal is to do as much processing as possible in the field."
Switchgrass research in Oklahoma, which includes OSU scientists, is funded in part by the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center. An EPA analysis released in May projected the production of 900 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass is economically feasible by 2022 and noted that "the majority of the switchgrass is projected to likely be grown in Oklahoma, where the majority of acres are replacing wheat and hay."
The EPA has estimated that by 2022, Oklahoma alone could produce 777 million gallons of ethanol a year, said Francis Epplin, an agricultural economics professor at OSU. He said switchgrass — a tall, thin plant native to the Great Plains — could potentially become the state's second largest crop after wheat.
"We're talking about a wonderful opportunity," Epplin said. "There's a tremendous market for energy."