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Here's an interesting example of how first-generation biofuels could be made sustainably. Dr A.R. Palani Swamy, an engineer who returned to India from the U.S., has set up a sweet sorghum-based ethanol plant in his native country with the help of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). The feedstock requires only one ninth of the water needed to grow sugar cane and only half that of maize; fertilizer inputs are comparably low. For these inputs, the sweet sorghum yields around 3160 liters of ethanol, comparable to the output for maize. What is more, the biofuel feedstock is produced by poor farmers.

With its pro-poor Biopower program, the ICRISAT has been leading efforts to leverage the potential of sustainable biofuel production as a stategy to boost the livelihoods of small farmers, to enhance their food security and to help lift them out of poverty. It draws on crops such as Pongamia and Jatropha and on social organisation models such as self-help groups for rural women and farmer cooperatives. But its main contribution comes from developing a very robust sweet sorghum hybrid.

Dr Swamy found support from the ICRISAT's technology commercialisation wing, the Agri-Business Incubator (ABI), which agreed to help his company Rusni Distilleries get off the ground. This helped form a unique combination - the entrepreneur, mentorship from the scientific organisation, an NGO that offered extension services for the sorghum crop, and the marginal farmers.

Besides facilitating the multiplication of seed material, ICRISAT organised melas, village meetings, to popularise the crop. The crucial aspect of establishing linkages with the farmers was organised by the NGO Aakruthi Agricultural Associates of India. It was not easy convincing the farmers initially, says G. Subba Rao, Director of AAI, but eventually they succeeded. The support of the ICRISAT also helped secure statutory clearances as well as investments into the crop.

Dr William Dar, Director-General of ICRISAT, says sorghum, a dryland crop, needs far less water than sugarcane, making it more accessible to the poor and marginal farmers who do not own land suitable for other crops. The ethanol production process from sweet sorghum is also considerably more eco-friendly compared to that from sugarcane molasses, adds Belum V. S. Reddy, Principal Scientist (Breeding) at ICRISAT, who is closely associated with the programme.

Keeping in mind the unfolding demand for alternative fuels, Reddy feels that the water-efficient sweet sorghum, with its sugar-rich stalks, could be the best option for producing ethanol. The biofuel's energy balance is strong, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions considerably and requires far less inputs than any other major first-generation biofuel crop:

Moreover, molasses-based ethanol distilleries run for only six months, while corn-based ethanol production raises concerns globally as it may adversely impact food security, says Reddy. Sweet sorghum faces none of these problems.

After developing the idea into a workable model at the incubation stage, Dr Palani Swamy set up the plant at Mohammed Shapur in Rangareddy district with an initial capacity of 40,000 litres a day. An engineer, Dr Swamy has built his fermentation tanks in pits. This will insulate the process from the outside temperature, which varies from 44 to 8 degrees through summer and winter.

The most important aspect of the production process is the timing of planting the crop. The whole stock shouldn't be coming in at one time, instead a staggered sowing plan was developed to ensure continuous flow of feedstock.

Reacting to concerns on food security, Dr Dar said ethanol production from sweet sorghum boosts farmer's incomes, which allows them to strengthen their food security. The project has entered into buyback arrangements with the farmers to take the whole output of sweet sorghum stalks.

Now that the combination evolved into a workable, successful model, there are a lot of people showing interest in replicating it in India and abroad. While ICRISAT would assist in the technology part, Rusni Distilleries would help in setting up the plant and back-end operations.

For Mr Belum Reddy, it is not just end of the story for research on sweet sorghum. Research will continue on developing varieties that would give higher sugar yield and suit different geographies.

Dr Palani Swamy believes that it makes a good business model too. It is a sellers market, he asserts. The demand for ethanol will only grow, he adds, pointing at India's moves to increase the blend to 10 per cent from the present five per cent. Swamy, who found it difficult to sell his dream a few years ago, is now a much sought-after man. He is already busy helping other entrepreneurs to set up similar plants.

Hindu Business Line: Ethanol from sorghum: A dream come true - October 11, 2007.

Biopact: Sweet super sorghum - yield data for the ICRISAT hybrid - February 21, 2007

Picture:Researchers insert an IV into the sorghum plant as a means of infusing the tracer sucrose, so that they can track the movement and distribution of sugar within the growing plant. Credit: Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.


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