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ENVIRONMENT-US: Florida Hopes Energy Farm Will Be First of Many

Mark Weisenmiller

TAMPA, Florida, Oct 10 2008 (IPS) - If an experiment to plant sweet sorghum in rural Florida and convert it to fuel ethanol pans out, it could herald a fundamental change in how the U.S. and other countries create and use renewable bio-energy, researchers say.

Biofuels, like ethanol, are widely blamed for driving food prices higher, sparking food riots in many countries. At least 25 percent of the U.S. maize crop is diverted to biofuel, and extensive areas in Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Brazil are also devoted to growing fuel rather than food.

With sweet sorghum, however, only the stalks are used for biofuel production, while the grain is saved for food or livestock feed. It is not in high demand in the global food market, and thus has little impact on food prices and food security.

In August, Florida's first sustainable energy farm began operations in Destiny, located in the central-eastern part of the state. The Destiny Energy Farm is a collaborative effort involving companies, individuals and academic research institutions, ranging from the private consulting firm Green Technologies LLC to the University of Florida.

The farm's first agricultural experiment is the planting of sweet sorghum, a drought-resistant crop which somewhat resembles corn, and is often used in similar ways as is maize. The two most common byproducts of sweet sorghum are syrups and molasses.

"Ultimately, the goal is to get the maximum sugars out of the sweet sorghum and see if it's commercially viable for fuel ethanol," explained Ben Scheffres of Global Renewable Energy, the chief engineer of the project. "That's something that is applicable to people not just here in Florida but the United States and also the entire world."

Distilling sugar from sweet sorghum as a way to create fuel ethanol has been done before – but on much smaller scales.

Zane Helsel, a visiting professor at the University of Florida, has been involved with the Destiny Energy Farm since the early part of this year. "I check planting rates and such things as what kind of fertilisers need to be used and how low the seeds need to be planted," he said.

"The U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Agriculture Department have identified sweet sorghum as some of the easiest crops used to produce ethanol but, locally, very, very little research had been done with sweet sorghum in central Florida and we really had to do our work," he told IPS.

Dr. Amir Varshovi, president of Green Technologies, said, "Our focus is to be able to supply renewable energy sources for these [sweet sorghum] crops. We give them some of our expertise about agronomic issues, such as when you want to produce crops for food, rather than fuel."

Although future experimental crops at the Destiny Energy Farm will include algae and jatropha, which produces an oily nut, the sweet sorghum crop experiment is now the agricultural engineers' primary focus. The idea is to make the Destiny Energy Farm totally sustainable. For example, farm equipment engines used at the site could be lubricated from the oil of the jatropha nut.

Eight different varieties of sweet sorghum have been planted, so harvesting happens at different times of the year.

"We've done sampling, once the sweet sorghum is mature enough, of the sugar in the plant's stalk. So we've harvested some of it already. The varieties of the sweet sorghum mature at different levels," said Scheffres.

"When you have a 365-day growing season, which we pretty much have here in Florida, it gives you more opportunities and time to experiment with sweet sorghum," explained Helsel. "What makes sweet sorghum viable for the Energy Farm is that it rations, which means that when you cut it off, it grows from new stems from the base of the plant."

The main problem for the Destiny Energy Farm has been the lengthy bureaucratic process of getting the project green-lighted. Eventually, developers plan to build the nation's first prototype "eco-sustainable" city there, with biking and hiking paths, clean renewable energy sources, and a minimal impact on the environment.

"Our land [the 41,300 acres owned by Destiny in central Florida] is set aside primarily for preservation and also sustainable agriculture and development," said Roz Gatewood, vice president for business development at Destiny.

"The entitlement process wouldn't be completed until 2011 – that's when all of the different state and federal government agencies would approve it," she said. "As some business owners are interested in bringing their production plants here, we need to keep these owners interested in the energy farm and to make sure that they are continually informed about what we're doing at the farm."

Both presidential candidates have publicly extolled the virtues of eco-friendly crops to help the United States wean itself from imported oil, but Scheffres believes that the work being done here on different types of clean energy technologies will continue regardless of who is elected next month.

"Part of the reason for the talk about all of this, I'm sure, is due to the presidential election," admitted Scheffres, "but the price of fuel gets people started on the topic and that's something that people all over the world have in common."

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