Minnesota research facility focuses on sweet sorghum

By Kris Bevill
Posted Oct. 14, 2009, at 7:21 a.m. CST

A shuttered ethanol production research facility is preparing to restart with a new focus of operation. Central Lakes College Ag Center director Bob Schafer said the 100,000-gallon capacity plant in Staples, Minn., began operating in 1980 as a corn ethanol production research facility and was one of the first stationary production facilities in Minnesota. But in 1983 the facility was abandoned by researchers because of operational difficulties with some of the equipment at the facility and poor ethanol economics. Ready-to-use biomass pellets were left in the biomass boiler, documents were left out on desks and pieces of operational equipment were simply shut off and left to rust. "It was just like somebody walked away from the dinner table," Schafer said.

Schafer is a veteran of the corn ethanol industry but has been working on various cellulosic feedstock projects since accepting the ag center director position at Central Lakes College, located in north-central Minnesota. After exploring a few dedicated energy crop options, it was determined that work at the ethanol production facility would be focused on utilizing juice from sweet sorghum to produce ethanol as a viable alternative to corn-based ethanol. According to Schafer, work this year focused on growing sweet sorghum to determine its viability as an energy crop in the northern U.S. as it has primarily been grown only in the southern states. Preliminary results have been good. "In light of our short growing season this year and looking at the yields�we're very happy with the amount of juice that we're getting," Schafer said. "We think that sweet sorghum is viable."

The next phase of research at the production facility will be to conduct fermentation studies to determine the best method of fermentation for the juice. Ultimately, Schafer said the goal of the project is to produce a low-proof ethanol that can be used to fuel on-farm equipment. He expects the facility to be fully operational by 2011, pending small repairs and maintenance issues at the facility.