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Sorghum’s potential in alternative fuel production discussed

Sorghum is getting a close look as a major biofuel feedstock for producing alternative fuels at an international conference this week in Houston.

More than 100 international experts from government, academia, the private sector and the agricultural community are attending the International Conference on Sorghum for Biofuels at the Omni Houston Hotel.

“Whether it’s for grain, sugar or high tonnage source of lignocellulose, most of you in attendance at this conference are committed to making sorghum the preferred dedicated feedstock for production of ethanol and other liquid fuels,” said Dr. Mark Hussey, interim vice chancellor for agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M University and director of Texas AgriLife Research.

Co-sponsors of the event include Texas A&M University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research, Education and Economics mission area and the National Sorghum Producers. Other conference co-sponsors include Brazil's Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, and Tsinghua University, in the Peoples' Republic of China.

With the high cost of gasoline causing economic hardship, developing alternative fuels is a critical issue, according to experts.

“I think we are on the brink of one of the greatest challenges in history,” said Dr. Gale Buchanan, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for research, education and economics. “It’s going to take everybody working together.”

Sorghum is a viable solution as work continues to develop a cleaner, more secure source of energy, Buchanan said.

Discussions at the conference Tuesday led representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China to sign a collaborative agreement for biofuels research.

“We have an existing cooperation between the USDA and the Chinese Ministry for Science and Technology,” said Eileen Herrera, acting deputy director for the Office of International Research Programs at USDA’s Agriculture Research Service. “We cooperate on several initiatives. Signing this protocol represents formal cooperation in the area of biofuels research.”

The agreement establishes the intent to “cooperate in establishing processes and infrastructure for conversion of sweet sorghum and other feedstocks to ethanol.” It also encourages collaboration among scientists worldwide to contribute to alternative energy research through the development of alternative feedstocks.

“Today’s signing establishes a virtual joint center for a series of projects that are very specific to the two centers,” said Michael Abbey, international affairs specialist and Asia program coordinator for USDA-Agriculture Research Service. “We also intend to include universities and business in both China and the United States. We can now focus on specific areas of cooperation.”

USDA houses an extensive sorghum germplasm library, and Buchanan told attendees the agency is looking forward to starting an exchange with any rncountry “and look at ways to stimulate partnerships.”

“This is a milestone for the sorghum industry and for our members as the world turns its attention to sorghum,” said Tim Lust, chief executive officer of the National Sorghum Producers. “Sorghum’s water sipping qualities, short growing season and ability to grow on 80 percent of the world’s land, including some marginal agricultural areas, really lends it to biofuels production as the U.S. and the world face pressing issues with energy independence and economic difficulties.”

Workshop attendees learned more about key scientific advances, economics and sustainable production and utilization of sorghum as a bioenergy crop. Participants will visit Texas A&M in College Station this week, learning more about ongoing research involving bioenergy feedstock and development led by AgriLife Research scientists.

Site visits also will be available to Jennings, La., where Verenium Corporation is constructing a 1.4-million-gallon-per-year demonstration cellulosic ethanol facility, the first of its kind in the United States.

For blog updates from the conference, visit Texas A&M AgriLife Blog.

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