Dr Hussaini Ibrahim is the director-general of the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC). In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, he says Nigeria had spent over N200bn on importation of bioethanol and syrup in six years, adding it can save such a huge amount of money and become self-reliant in the production of these two by growing sweet sorghum in the country. The excerpts.
What is bioethanol and why is it so important in industrial production circles?
Bioethanol refers to the pure ethanol produced from a variety of feedstocks including grains, most especially maize, agricultural wastes, and other biomass resources. The production of bioethanol increased in the 19th Century due to economic improvements in the distillation process. More recently, sweet sorghum has become a very important raw material for bioethanol production in view of its special attributes, most especially, the syrup present in its stalk. Bioethanol is used in industrial circles for production of perfumes, cosmetics and glucose syrup which is employed in the production of soft drinks, fruit juice and confectioneries, etc. Bioethanol is also extensively used as fuel in various combustion engines, especially in automobiles. It is the only direct substitute for fossil fuels that is available on a significant scale. About 93.6 billion litres of bioethanol were produced in 2016, and is projected to replace 15-20 per cent of global gasoline consumption by 2019.
The development of bioethanol is important as the global fossil fuel resource is thinning in availability regardless of the use of new technologies or the discovery of new oil deposits. The instability in the price of oil and the negative impact on the environment, human and biochemical cycles are propelling systematic shift towards biogeochemical cycles. As a result, the interest in biofuels is growing rapidly due to concerns about climate change from greenhouse gas emission and desire to promote domestic rural economy.
What are the major raw materials for bioethanol production globally? Does it mean that the raw materials are not available in Nigeria?
Bioethanol is produced from biomass mostly via fermentation process using glucose derived from sugars (sugar cane, sugar beet and molasses), starch (corn, wheat, grains) or cellulose (forest products) as raw materials. In this form, it is renewable. Thus, first generation raw materials used at commercial scale are corn (maize), wheat, potato, cassava, sugar cane and beet.
The present annual production exceeds over 1 billion MT. The USA and China are the major producers. The major challenge in corn production is its high requirement of fertilizers and pesticides. This make its production cost to be high and its cultivation expensive for peasant farmers in most developing countries, most especially, in countries where there are no subsidy regimes.
Also another major raw material is cassava. It is one of the most important food crops in the humid tropics. It is highly adaptable to conditions of low nutrient availability and it is able to survive drought conditions. However, with over 200 million MT of world cassava root production, ethanol produced from cassava starch contributes less than 8 per cent of total global ethanol production. The use of cassava for ethanol production faces stiff competition in many African countries where it is used to produce many staple products that yield more income for farmers.
Nigeria for example, is the highest producer of cassava with over 40 million MT/annum, yet it contributes less than 0.05 per cent of the global glucose syrup and ethanol production. The implication of this is that if Nigeria must compete as a major player in global ethanol production, newer sources of raw materials must be exploited among the crops that are not fully utilized as staple food crops. Likewise, the use of other first generation biofuels such as sugarcane and sugar beet follow the same pattern as they are important raw materials for food and sugar production globally and the need for conservation of biodiversity make their uses unsustainable.
What is sweet sorghum and what are the attributes that makes it a better alternative than the aforementioned raw materials?
The term “sorghum” involves a considerable group of annual herbaceous C4 species. They are members of the Poaceae family used for centuries in many countries in Africa. Sorghum originates from Ethiopia and spread to parts of Africa, Asia, especially, India and Southeast Asia, Australia and the Americas. There is presently, a growing interest in the species in China and Brazil.
Sorghum has been cultivated in Africa from time immemorial. In Nigeria, sorghum is cultivated extensively in most parts of the northern region for its seed which has various industrial and food applications. However, sweet sorghum is a more recent group of plants, derived from the existing species/subspecies and its varieties or from their hybridization.
In sweet sorghum, biomass synthesis occurs with relatively low energy, chemicals and water inputs, which are typical of C4 plants but that are more significant in this particular case. In C4 plants, the mesophyll cells are specialized for CO2 pumping rather than for carbonfixation, and thereby they create a high ratio of CO2 to O2 in the bundle-sheath cells, where the carbon-fixation cycle occurs. There are several advantages of growing the crop for bioethanol, glucose syrup and animal feeds production. First, it is hardy and thrives in arid conditions such as where precipitation is low and access to irrigation water is limited. Second, yields of syrup and bioethanol from sweet sorghum are comparable to that of sugar cane and better than cassava. It is a short duration crop which can be grown twice in a year.
While grain sorghums are used for human food, forage and animal feed, sweet sorghum combine both attributes with the production of edible syrup. Various studies have also indicated that sweet sorghum is the most sustainable ecosystem for renewable fuel, syrup and animal feeds production as it provides the most efficient use of land, water, nitrogen and energy resources.
What really does the council want to achieve?
The primary objective of the council is to develop sweet sorghum value chain in Nigeria and also to promote the venture as small/medium enterprises in rural areas using the village model system. Emphases are being placed on the production of glucose syrup and bioethanol for industrial and energy uses. At present, the primary source of glucose syrup and bioethanol in Nigeria is from starch which is obtained mostly from cassava tuber. Though, the country is the highest producer of cassava in the world, its consumption as a staple food and its high cost make it too expensive and mostly unavailable for the few industries producing starch for syrup production.
This make Nigeria as a nation depend extensively on the importation of syrup. For instance, between 2011 and 2017, over 300,000 tonnes of syrup valued at $130m were imported. Ekha Agro Farms Limited located at Km 25, Lagos Ibadan Expressway, is one of the few companies producing glucose syrup from cassava starch. It produces about 26 per cent of national demand, while more than 70 per cent of national requirement is still being imported. Apart from this, Nigeria imported over 71,900 MT of ethanol between 2011 and 2017 valued at N200 billion for various industrial applications. The need to stem this tide and make the nation self-reliant in the production of bioethanol and syrup made the council to initiate this project.
What are the immediate plans and what have you been able to achieve so far?
The first priority of the council was to introduce improved sweet sorghum varieties into the relevant ecological zones in Nigeria. This was done in collaboration with the Niger State Government of Nigeria. Eleven sweet sorghum lines from Beijing Sangliang Technology Development Centre (STDC) were obtained and evaluated on a 50 ha farm at Tegina in Niger State in collaboration with the Institute of Agricultural Research, Zaria. This was to establish the adaptability of the Chinese lines in Nigeria. It was also carried out to see how the plant will react to local pests and diseases. The parameters determined during the trial were the plant height, days of maturity, yield of grains/hectare, yield of stem cuttings/ha, brix content/plant and stem diameter. The multi-locational and on farm trials on 9 lines were evaluated in 2017 in Samaru, Kaduna State, Tegina, Niger State, Saminaka in Kaduna State, Gabasawa in Kano State and Bakori in Katsina State.
So far, the results are very encouraging. The results of the evaluation trials satisfied the first step of the protocols for registration and release of new varieties while the 2017 evaluation combined locations for agronomic traits of sweet sorghum lines. As a result of these, the importation of sweet sorghum seeds should be drastically reduced in no distant future. A number of private sector investors and state governments have indicated interest in the sweet sorghum value chain development exercise in Nigeria and we are collaborating with them to work out the modalities for achieving this. The council has also started the process of encouraging farmers to go into massive planting of sweet sorghum this year, 2019, planting season.
How far have you gone with the fabrication of the plant locally?
An audit of the processing facilities required for the production of glucose syrup and ethanol had been carried out. The major equipment required are weighing machines, conveyor belt, shredder, press, digestion chamber, maturation chamber and evaporator. In view of paucity of foreign exchange, the council has commissioned Bonaffairs Nigeria Limited for equipment design and fabrication. It is our intention that by the end of first quarter of 2019, the equipment would have been fabricated, tested and commissioned for production of syrup and ethanol for various industrial uses. Two of the council’s engineers have undergone training in China on the design and fabrication of the requisite equipment and they are coordinating the equipment design and fabrication exercise.
What are your projections on this project?
As I said earlier, the world is moving gradually from fossil fuels to biofuels. While our initial plans are to satisfy local industrial demand of glucose syrup and ethanol for use in our different industries, our projection is to encourage production of adequate and sustainable quantities of bioethanol for all the markets where it is required globally. These are beverages, pharmaceuticals, confectioneries, cosmetics and other industrial applications including fuel producing industries. This will ensure that Nigeria also contribute to the elimination of global warming by the replacement of fossil fuels by biofuels in several areas of industrial applications locally. This may take some time as a result of level of technological advancement locally. However, with the approach we have already introduced, it is my belief that this is achievable and will positively impact on our industrial development aspirations.
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