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  • Cheap, green, food-friendly biofuel produced in India


[NEW DELHI] The first commercial batch of biofuel from the stalks of a new sweet sorghum hybrid has been produced this month (13 June) at a distillery in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India.

Ethanol is produced from the sweet juice in the stalk of the sweet sorghum. The researchers responsible for the hybrid say by using sorghum, resource-poor farmers will still be able to use the sorghum grain and protect food security, while earning an additional income from selling the stalks.

This first batch marks a major success for the research consortium that developed the new hybrid, says Belum V. S. Reddy, principal sorghum breeder at the India-based International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Sweet sorghum is a cheap biofuel crop to grow, costing about a fifth of that of sugarcane. It also requires half the water needed to grow maize and about an eighth of that required for sugarcane.

It is also carbon neutral, according to the Latin American Thematic Network on Bioenergy — a project promoting the sustainable use of bioenergy. Sweet sorghum takes in the same of amount of carbon dioxide during its growth that it emits during growth and its later conversion to ethanol and the eventual ethanol combustion.

When sweet sorghum biofuel is blended with petrol it also emits less polluting sulphur and nitrous oxide compared to sugarcane biofuel, according to Reddy.

A major problem for ICRISAT was ensuring availability of sweet sorghum stalks throughout the year. "Different plant types produce different amounts of juice at different times of the year and it is important to have genetic stocks that can produce the same amount of juice throughout the year," says Reddy.

ICRISAT solved the problem by developing hybrids that can be planted at any time of the year.

The team intend to plant at least 4000 acres of the new crop during the next rainy season, according to G. Subba Rao, director of Aakrithi Agricultural Associates of India, a partner in the project.

Clusters of villages have been identified for the planting, and seeds distributed to the farmers. A method has also been designed to collect the stalks from the farmers, which will then be crushed at cluster centres and the syrup transported to the main distillery.

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