Sweet potato ethanol hope

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Resources -

SWEET pota­toes may be­come a good source of ethanol and could re­duce the bio­fuel in­dus­try’s con­tro­ver­sial use of corn, re­searchers be­lieve. North Carolina State Univer­sity sci­en­tists said this week they were mak­ing progress in de­vel­op­ing a tu­ber with a high starch con­tent that may pro­duce more ethanol per weight than corn.

‘‘ Th­ese are not your grand­mother’s sweet pota­toes,’’ says Craig Yen­cho, a hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist at the univer­sity head­ing a project to de­velop al­ter­na­tive uses for the veg­etable. ‘‘ The in­dus­trial sweet potato is ed­i­ble, but not palat­able.’’

Yen­cho said that while the ta­ble ver­sion is orange inside, the in­dus­trial sweet potato typ­i­cally has a pur­ple or white skin and white flesh with a much higher starch con­tent that lim­its its sweet taste.

Ethanol, pro­duced from corn in the US and sug­ar­cane in Brazil, can be used in place of pe­tro­leum for some fu­els. But high de­mand for ethanol has led to a jump in corn and other food prices, cre­at­ing other prob­lems.

The re­searchers said a chal­lenge is low­er­ing pro­duc­tion costs to take ad­van­tage of the high starch con­tent of sweet pota­toes, which tra­di­tion­ally are planted by hand.

‘‘ But if we could plant them the same way you plant an Ir­ish potato — by plant­ing cut ‘ seed’ pieces and me­chan­i­cally plant­ing them into the ground, we could cut plant­ing costs in half,’’ Yen­cho says.

‘‘ The ethanol pro­duc­tion from sweet pota­toes then be­comes much more cost­ef­fec­tive and fea­si­ble. Not only would th­ese sweet pota­toes be a much more vi­able ethanol source than corn, but be­cause they are in­dus­trial sweet pota­toes, we wouldn’t be tak­ing away from a food source.’’

Yen­cho is cur­rently in China help­ing the world’s lead­ing pro­ducer of sweet pota­toes tap the crop’s bio­fuel po­ten­tial. AFP

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