Lawmakers learn progress of sorghum-to-ethanol project

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CARLISLE, Ky.-Brazil is doing it; so are places in Florida and Texas. And now retired IBM chemical engineer and Southeast Biofuels President Stephen Popyach, of Mt. Sterling, wants Kentucky to invest more in production of ethanol using sorghum as feedstock.

“Most foreign countries that want to become energy independent are growing sorghum right now,” Popyach told the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture and Small Business at Blue Licks State Resort Park last week. Popyach said 700 gallons of ethanol can be produced with an acre of sweet sorghum, a plant that is similar to corn and grows well, even in poor soil.

Southeast Biofuels has finished the first phase of a project that resulted in production of a million gallons of ethanol from 2,000 harvested acres of sweet sorghum, Popyach said. Passed among committee members were a dry, dense sorghum stalk, a glass jar containing juice pressed from sorghum feedstock, and a smaller jar containing ethanol made from the juice.

It takes 10 million gallons of the juice to make a million gallons of ethanol, Popyach said.

No funding is yet available for the project’s second phase, which Popyach expects to cost around $400,000, he told lawmakers.

“Phase II is to actually prove to the farmer that we actually have a working unit sitting on a farm,” Popyach said. “That is what we’re trying to do.”

Current plans are for Southeast Biofuels to develop a unit that can fit on one tractor trailer and produce 250 gallons of sorghum ethanol a day-or 90,000 gallons a year-on the farm, he said. Each unit will be modular, mobile, and require 200 acres of sweet sorghum for production, he said.

In keeping with the company’s plans to make ethanol production possible “on the farm”, Popyach told lawmakers that producing ethanol from sorghum is not a very complex process.

“It’s not hard to do,” he said.

Making it possible for farmers to refine their own fuel on the farm will not only eliminate transportation costs required to moving fuel from Point A to Point B, but Popyach said the cost to make a gallon of ethanol from sorghum on the farm is affordable at around $1.60. The ethanol, which is a fuel additive, can also play a role in Kentucky’s goal of energy independence, Popyach said.