UF Researchers Use $5.4 Million Grant to Succeed in Making Ethanol From Sorghum

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Researchers at the University of Florida have been working to create ethanol from plants beyond sugarcane. Five years and more than $5 million later, they’ve completed their mission.

In May 2011, UF received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy for $5.4 million toward biomass research and development. Since then, UF researchers have been investigating ways to turn sorghum, a crop found mostly in Africa, into a biomass energy resource.

The U.S. is currently one of the top producers of sorghum, and the plant was recently found to be suitable for growth in Florida.

“When sorghum became an interesting candidate as an energy crop, with USDA support, that was developed as a new project,” said James Preston, a professor in UF’s department of microbiology and cell science.

Dr. Preston shows the lab where sorghum is mixed with potassium to extract the cellulose. (WUFT News/James Torrez)
James Preston shows the lab where sorghum is mixed with potassium to extract the cellulose. (James Torrez/WUFT News)

Along with Lonnie Ingram and K.T. Shanmugam, who also work in the department, Preston worked to extract sugar from the crop and turn that into energy.

The researchers worked under project founder and director Wilfred Vermerris.

“Sorghum was great in Florida because of the hot and dry weather,” Vermerris said.

According to the researchers, high gas prices created the demand for alternatives, so one of their first experiments was to create ethanol. The extraction process is something the researchers were always able to do, most popularly with sugar canes.

But they are now able to do it with a new crop, and the researchers are very proud.

“We’ve accomplished the majority of what we set out to do five years ago,” Vermerris said.

Sorghum did have its challenges.

The plant contains lignin, which makes it very difficult for the scientists to isolate the sugar and go to the next step in extraction, Vermerris said. Once they are able to squeeze out the sugar from the sorghum, the scientists then grind the sorghum bagasse and extract it with potassium, a process Preston calls “upstreaming.”

The sorghum is later fermented with bacteria for about 48 hours and researchers are able to measure how much energy has been created.

The Sorghom Begasse is being fermented with bacteria. This process takes up to 48 hours. (WUFT News/James Torrez)
The aorghum bagasse is being fermented with bacteria. This process takes up to 48 hours. (James Torrez/WUFT News)

The next big step, the researchers said, is to implement a commercial plan. In terms of ethanol, the group said it’s currently difficult to market.

“Since gas prices are so low, no one is really racing to compete with them,” Ingram said.

But Vermerris said he feels the project is still absolutely worth the money and time.

“Fossil fuels aren’t going to be around forever,” Vermerris added. “This is just another great alternative.”

Biomass has been a source of criticism in Gainesville, as the city entered into a 30-year contract with Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC) that critics have blamed, in part, for higher rates locally.

This team’s research, though, is not destined for use at GREC.

“Our sorghums are not intended to be used in biomass plants like the one in Gainesville,” said Vermerris.

About James Torrez

James is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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