Promising results from sweet sorghum as source of biofuel – places in Phl a good spot

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With the recent developments in the country wherein government agencies are looking into fuel feedstocks that have high potential for commercialization, sweet sorghum has risen to fame with its promise as an alternative source of biofuel. One of the government agencies that have set its priorities on sweet sorghum is the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR), focusing on how viable and competitive sweet sorghum as source of bioethanol feedstock.

Its strategies and activities toward commercialization of sweet sorghum for commercial production of ethanol have been formulated and started was discussed extensively in a talk presented by Professor Rex Demafelis of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) during at the 7th Agriculture and Fisheries Technology Forum and Product Exhibition.

Demafelis, a licensed professional chemical engineer and professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering, UPLB, discussed “Biofuels Feedstock Development,” with an underlying aim toward commercialization of alternative biofuel feedstocks in our country-focusing primarily on the potentials of sweet sorghum.

The current mandatory provisions, according to Prof. Demafelis, include Republic Act 9367, or The Biofuels Act of 2006, that calls for mandatory blending of bioethanol and biodiesel to gasoline and diesel, respectively. Effective 6 February 2009, the blending of 2 percent biodiesel in all diesel fuels sold in the country was implemented. Not everyone may be aware of it, but diesel sold in gasoline stations all over the country today is 2 percent biodiesel. As of last 6 August 2011, 10 percent bioethanol blending with gasoline with certain octane levels was also implemented, thus increasing the demand for bioethanol.

Last year, there was a 5 percent mandatory blending of bioethanol with gasoline. The fuel displacement or bioethanol requirement reached 178 million liters. This year, by merely multiplying it by two, seeing as the requirement has now reached 10 percent blending of bioethanol to gasoline, the demand should increase to nearly 360 million liters. If the increase in percentage of blending continues, the projections of the good professor are that, if we have to blend 15 percent bioethanol by 2015, we will need about 645 million liters of bioethanol by that year.

In terms of biodiesel, the demand last year reached 107 million liters as per required 2 percent blending of biodiesel with all diesel fuel sold in the country. Projecting a 10 percent biodiesel blending requirement by 2015, studies showed that the requirement should reach 663 million liters annually.

As per Prof. Demafelis’ presentation, the crop advantages of sweet sorghum as compared with sugar cane includes: lower water requirement and greater resilience to drought; relatively lower fertilizer requirement; shorter crop cycle (two to three croppings per year); higher cane yield per hectare per year (an average of 50 tons/hectare per cropping); and, it is considered a multicrop as both its stalk and grains can be used for ethanol production, its grains for poultry feed, and its stalks for sugar and vinegar production. However, it cannot be used for table sugar as it cannot be crystallized.

In terms of benefits to the sweet sorghum farmer, Prof. Demafelis presented an estimated cost/income potential, using a matrix provided by Dr. Heraldo Layaoen of the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU). Dr. Layaoen has been heavily involved in the evaluation of sweet sorghum as a farmer’s crop. With two croppings in the dry season, one as seed crop and the other as ratoon crop, the Prof. Layaoen’s data included a set of parameters: yield of 50 tons/hectare of cane from the seed crop and 3,000 kg seeds per hectare. With these parameters, at a price of Php700 per ton of cane, a farmer could earn Php35,000 out of the cane and Php30,000 out of the seeds at Php10 per kilo, for a total gross sale of Php65,000. Production cost during this first cropping amounts to Php30,755 for a net income of Php34,245.

For the ratoon crop, with the same parameters of Php700 per ton of cane and Php10 per kilogram of seeds and the same tons of seeds and cane harvested, the cost of production decreased from Php30,000 to about Php15,000 with the deduction of the costs of seeds and land preparation. With a total sale of Php65,000, less the decreased cost of production for the ratoon crop compared with the seed crop mentioned earlier, the net income amounts to Php49,700. Adding up these net incomes projected for a single dry season, the total could reach Php83,960.

Prof. Demafelis reported that not only will farmers benefit from this new venture, but processors can also do as well. He presented a table outlining a projected selling price of ethanol coming from sweet sorghum compared with petroleum gasoline at Php55 per liter. In the computation, should the processor buy the sweet sorghum cane at PhP700 per ton cane (or PhP/TC) with the estimated 9 percent, the selling price of ethanol coming from sweet sorghum amounts to Php33, a much lower price than Php55 for gasoline. Even if the processor buys the sweet sorghum stalks at a projected higher price of 1,700 (Php/TC), the selling price falls at Php53, still lower compared with gasoline. In addition, sweet sorghum has a °Brix or estimated fermentable sugar of 9 percent, and as the fermentable sugar of sweet sorghum increases, wherein studies show results higher than the estimated 9 percent, the more viable the ethanol’s country production using sweet sorghum becomes. Thus, with a higher fermentable sugar of as much as 15 percent, with a Php/TC of 700, the projected selling price can be as low as Php28, much cheaper indeed than petroleum gasoline.

There is also the development of sweet sorghum hybrids, with studies funded by BAR and implemented by the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB). In addition, under the collaborative work of Prof. Demafelis and Dr. Layaoen, plantation trials were implemented with the industry players which was further realized through the conduct of the “1st Sweet Sorghum Business Summit and Plantation Showcase” held in June 2011 in Negros Occidental.

Given these small yet promising results that are being looked into even further, the country sees a great chance that soon enough, it can fend for itself in terms of the availability of fuels and deal effectively with their externally influenced pricing, and even better, compete at the forefront with the rest of the world to provide a cleaner environment. (Maria Anna M. Gumapac/DA-BAR)

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