Another Crop for Ethanol

July 14, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
A little known crop that has proven to be a better ethanol source than corn.The price of gas has dipped a little in the valley over the last week, but it's still higher than just about anywhere else in the country. It's down four cents this week to $4.56 cents a gallon in Fresno. In Merced, it's $4.53 a gallon, which is also down four cents from last week, and in Visalia, it's down a nickel to $4.60 a gallon.

The secret to cutting those prices may be on the farm.

It seemed like a good idea: instead of drilling the far ends of the earth for fuel, we could grow some, cheaply, right here at home; we could turn corn into ethanol.

By some counts, a fifth of America's corn crop now goes in your gas tank. But if the idea is to drive the price down, it's not working.

Some researchers claim this might, though. It's Sweet Sorghum, a very different crop, grown around the world, mostly for livestock feed. In parts of India, they already squeeze out its juice to make fuel. And they only need the stalk of the plant; parts that would normally go to waste.

"In the near future as we go forward you will see these types of crop become more and more prominent," said William Rooney with Texas A&M University.

In a field outside College Station, Texas, Bill Rooney and his team at Texas A&M are working with sorghum too. They said it grows more quickly than corn, and gives more fuel from each plant. "The process yields about eight times more energy than it consumes, so it's a much more energy efficient way to produce ethanol," said Mark Winslow with International Crops Research Institute.

Researchers claim sorghum alone will not solve America's energy problems. And some analysts say so-called bio-fuels could do environmental harm, especially if farmers clear out forests to plant them. But sorghum could help. It's cheap, and it won't drive up the cost of food the way corn ethanol has.

With gas prices where they are, advocates say the country needs all the ideas it can get.


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