The Mid-South will continue to be a focal point of biofuel research following recent USDA grants to the LSU AgCenter and University of Tennessee. The $136 million in total grant funds was not unexpected as the Obama administration has made no secret of its desire to bolster rural economies through biofuel production.

For more on biofuels, see here.

Already carrying a solid track record in such research, the LSU AgCenter received a five-year grant of over $17 million. Its charge: pick up the pace in developing biofuels and chemicals from feedstocks of sugarcane and sweet sorghum.

LSU AgCenter professor Vadim Kochergin, a chemical engineer by training, will be the “principal investigator” for the project. Five years ago, Kochergin moved south following 15 years of work in Idaho’s sugar industry with the Amalgamated Sugar Company.

“Right now, I’m stationed at the Audubon Sugar Institute, part of the AgCenter,” Kochergin told Farm Press in early October. “We work with the local cane sugar industry. We’re actually doing a lot of work with all manner of sugar applications.”

Kochergin also spoke on what the research with entail, key challenges, and the need for farmers to have “honest” numbers. Among his comments:

On the differences between the LSU study and sugar-to-energy work done on Brazil…

“Brazil has different conditions. They grow cane 10 months of the year and have very high yields. It’s a different situation.

“Here, we’re trying to evaluate where our group can contribute. We feel there are some regionally important crops like energy cane and sweet sorghum. Those are important for the whole of the Southeast. We believe expanding their growing area beyond the traditional boundaries – especially into marginal lands, fallow lands – will allow us to gain more biomass that can be converted to different chemicals and fuels.

“That’s what we’re looking at.

“We also have partners around the country who are very good, with great technologies that allow the conversion of sugars into chemicals and fuels. Virent produces gasoline and diesel and Genencor is looking at making synthetic rubber from simple sugars.

“We’re trying to find an optimal way to grow feedstock and converting it. We may be a small group but we’re working hard.”

On farmers working with a viable, profitable biofuel industry…

“That lines up with part of the USDA grant we just received. We want to find an answer to that question.

“As for ethanol-from-cellulose, there are factories being built. However, in my opinion, much of that is still only marginally economical. If it becomes truly economical, it’ll be all over the place – and it isn’t yet.

“There’s still a way to go. I don’t agree with those who say biofuels will replace the oil-based fuels. Of course, the biofuel niche will expand and find the right fit.

“It’s evolution. How fast the biofuel industry evolves, is difficult to predict. When it isn’t economical in the initial stages, there’s a way to drop the price down. But it’s almost like a Catch-22 because you have to build larger plants to reduce the cost.  

“Another important thing is trying to diversify. Ethanol was at the forefront of the alternative fuels development. But there are different renewable fuels and we’re working with partners to develop gasoline from sugar, diesel from sugar, energy from fiber, all sorts of things.

“We need diversification. We must look at different crops, different materials and find working solutions to their conversion.  

“We also must develop feedstocks and find the best ways to process it. The process must be cheaper.”

On two types of sugar…

“Essentially, there are two types of sugar. First is the sugar you can squeeze out of cane or sorghum. That’s the cheapest sugar you can get. Then, you can convert the sugars – not necessarily table sugar, by the way -- to fuels and chemicals. That’s what’s known as ‘carbohydrates to hydrocarbons.’

“Also, the plants have a fibrous portion that is often burned in cane factories for power generation. Another approach is to break those fibers down to make simple sugars and produce cellulosic ethanol or some other material. That approach is more expensive because it must be further chemically or biologically converted.

“Also, you need to take a portion of the fiber and put it into energy or power generation.  

“For each application – say, sweet sorghum or energy cane to gasoline or isoprene (synthetic rubber) – there are different amounts of energy required. What we need to do is evaluate and generate those production scenarios while considering real-world economics. Then, present the findings to farmers.”