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.”

Real-world numbers

On providing real-world numbers for farmers…

“We must give farmers realistic numbers. A grower must feed his family, bottom line. If they can’t feed their family, forget biofuels because they’re going to go with a crop they can make a living growing, year after year in a sustainable way.

“American farmers are the most productive in the world. And they have to deal with many issues that farmers in other countries don’t. The American farmer is a businessman, an entrepreneur and numerous other roles.

“In the case of biofuels, we have to speak to farmers honestly. We must present them with real numbers, real consequences – not appeal to them via emotions or what we hope or wish (biofuel feedstocks) will provide.

“In our study group, we have four economics professors from different areas. One is Mike Salassi from Louisiana, who is collaborating with colleagues from Texas, Kentucky and Arkansas. So, there will be a widely dispersed group looking at production scenarios across the Southeast. They will provide real numbers, honest numbers.”

On expectations regarding the project…

“The (USDA-backed) project is for five years.

“Part of it will be building a small plant next to the Audubon Institute. That should be operational in about 18 months. With the help of research partners, we’ll be producing syrups from crops – sweet sorghum and energy cane -- grown right next door.

“We’ll create samples for different conversion partners. They’ll then provide us with feedback. They’ll tell us what needs to be modified with pre-treatments and treatments of the feedstocks.

“Also, there is an engineering team as part of the research group. We’ll try to generate the numbers of capital and operating costs. Then, we’ll pass that to the economists for regional scenario evaluations.

“So, by the end of the grant’s five years we expect to have solid numbers for sorghum and cane, for several select fuels and chemicals.

“Also, we’re trying to create a regional system that will provide access to other partners. For example, if someone if interested in building a factory in the Southeast – say, they want to use sweet sorghum grown in Mississippi – there’s no reason they can’t bring us a sample. We’ll process and evaluate it and give them the analysis to (show if it’s viable).

“Then, they can go to area farmers and present them with the information and go from there.

“Again, we must provide honest analysis, honest numbers. Right now, there are a lot of people running around throwing a lot of dubious numbers. And how is a farmer to know they’re speaking truth? Where does he go to find out or screen them?

“The Louisiana Institute for Biofuels and Bioprocessing could help with that. We’re trying coordinate efforts and create a knowledge base for those types of numbers, to be able to say ‘these figures are unrealistic. Forget those. These numbers over here, however, are reasonable and this company is worth working with.’ Too many people are currently jumping on the bandwagon trying to get quick money out of (biofuels).”

Challenges, responsibilities

On the biggest challenge…

“In my opinion, the biggest challenge currently is finding inexpensive feedstocks that contain simple sugars. We need to increase the biomass yields, growing new varieties and materials, optimizing the amount of sugar and fiber in different plants.

“There’s a lot of work still to do before biorefineries can be built in a big way.”  

On other job responsibilities…

“Part of our job is to work with the local sugar industry. That’s a daily routine – I’ve just finished visiting with two sugar mills this morning. The Audubon Sugar Institute provides technical support for both the growers and processors of sugar.

“Another thing we do is to try and diversify options for growers and prepare for the future. We’re looking for the opportunities where they can supplement values of what they’re already growing. We’re not trying to say ‘stop planting this and try something else.’

“Instead, we’re looking at adding value to the existing agricultural infrastructure.”

More on the grant…

“We have 16 partners from eight states in industry and academia and one USDA lab. The impetus is to create a mini-biorefinery where we’ll be able to grow (feedstock) crops next door and process them fresh. We’ll evaluate the materials used by the different partners.

“It will also be used as a training center for Extension and Education. That’s important and we feel we’ll be positioned to allow out-of-state people to take advantage of that training. The purpose of the USDA grant isn’t just for Louisiana but for the whole South and Southeast.”