Motorists traveling along Brazos bottom farmland just outside of College Station are doing double takes over a towering 12-foot sorghum crop.
The unorthodox-looking sorghum is the latest study by Dr. Bill Rooney,Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher, who hopes to produce a high-tonnage variety that could soon be used for bioenergy.
Talk of using tall sorghum to power an automobile is no Aggie joke. Sorghum as a source of biofuels had some of the nation's top scientists at the Great Plains Sorghum Conference enthusiastic about its future.
"Ag is changing," said Jeff Dahlberg, president of the National Sorghum Producers. "We're no longer about just feed and food. We're about fuel and bioenergy. I think it's caught people in this country by surprise."
With talk of ethanol focusing primarily on corn, sorghum can play a pivotal role since it can fit into starch, sugar and cellulosic conversions, Dahlberg said.
Sorghum is just one aspect of the Experiment Station's bioenergy initiatives. Rooney's research has focused on improving sorghum as a bioenergy feedstock. To that end, he has collaborated with other scientists looking into sorghum's prospects as a bioenergy component.
"The (sorghum breeding) program in College Station changed about four years ago," he told a group of researchers at the conference. "On the side, we began working on bioenergy and sweet sorghums. It's evolved into a project that has consumed a good portion of time."
Like sugarcane, sorghum can be converted into ethanol. The tall sorghum trials in College Station boast superior genes from hybrid sorghums. Specifically, Rooney is evaluating the sorghum's sugar content.
"If we want to develop a high-sugar hybrid, we have to have high levels of sugar on both sides of the parent," he explained.
Using cross-pollination of selected hybrid varieties, Rooney will soon establish a superior, high-yielding plant variety commercially viable for biofuel production. He's also attempting to include genetic traits that withstand periods of drought.
The tall sorghum trials are also being conducted in Weslaco and Lubbock. Another component of the research is harvesting. Rooney and other scientists are evaluating composition and yield both for animal feed and ethanol production, he said.
"One of the things we are looking at is how long can you leave this in the field," he said.
The Lone Star state is positioned to help meet the challenge of producing 1 billion tons of biomass needed to replace 30 percent of the nation's petroleum, said Dr. Bill McCutchen, Experiment Station deputy associate director. The state already is one of the largest biomass producers in the nation.
"Twenty-five percent of the nation's beef is in the Panhandle alone, ”he told conference attendees. "We have a large forest industry and overallwe're a major biomass producer when you factor in the amount of crops produced in Texas. We have the largest installed wind energy and biodiesel capacity. Texas produces a lot of biomass, and we're diverse."
Using plant cellulose from Texas crops, such as sorghum, not only "has incredible potential, but also big potential for bi-products."
"Sorghum produces more biomass than corn, using 33 percent less water,"McCutchen said. "Sorghum may have been overlooked as a potential biomass product."
If modeled after the sugarcane industry, a tall sorghum variety producing 20-plus tons to the acre transported to a processing plant within a 40-mile radius "is economically viable," he said.
"The sugarcane industry has been doing this for a long time," he said.
"What we're not saying is switchgrass or corn isn't a viable crop, but if we can grow sorghum, it's worth giving a serious look. We believe this paradigm is happening and will happen."
But how to incorporate these crops into an existing portfolio of feedstock crops and other cash commodities in Texas is a challenge that lies ahead, he said.
"One of the things we envision is we want to be able to grow dedicated biomass crops for fuel within a diverse system," he said. More information on the Experiment Station's bioenergy initiatives can be found at http://taes.tamu.edu/BioenergyInitiatives.htm.