Watermelons tapped for ethanol

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WASHINGTON — With their sweet, refreshing juices watermelons are a favorite summertime treat, especially around July 4th. But now this Independence Day favorite could become even more of a patriotic commodity.

Ethanol

Agricultural Research Service studies in Lane, Okla., have shown simple sugars in watermelon juice can be made into ethanol.

In 2007, growers harvested 4 billion pounds of watermelon for fresh and cut-fruit markets.

Around 800 million pounds — or 20 percent of the total — were left in fields because of external blemishes or deformities.

New lease on life

Now, instead of being plowed under, such melons could get an economic “new lease on life” as ethanol.

Normally, this biofuel is produced from cane crops like corn, sorghum or sugarcane as a cleaner-burning alternative to gasoline.

The watermelon work reflects a national push by Agricultural Research Service to diversify America’s “portfolio” of biofuel crops that can diminish the reliance on petroleum, especially from foreign suppliers.

Ethanol studies

Chemist Wayne Fish’s ethanol studies at the Agricultural Research Service South Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Lane complement ongoing research there to commercially extract lycopene and citrulline from the crop.

Both are valued nutraceutical compounds thought to promote cardiovascular and other health benefits.

In publication-pending studies, Fish showed ethanol can be fermented from the glucose, fructose and sucrose in waste-stream juices — what’s left after lycopene and citrulline are extracted.

Defray costs

Making ethanol offers the potential benefits of helping to defray sewage treatment costs associated with nutraceutical extraction, and providing watermelon growers with a new market for their crop.

On average, a 20-pound watermelon will yield about 1.4 pounds of sugar from the flesh and rind, from which about seven-tenths of a pound of ethanol can be derived.

To extract all the possible sugars, Fish is seeking to degrade the rind with chemical and enzyme treatments.

He’s also evaluating different combination of temperatures, yeasts, antifoaming agents and pH levels to optimize the system.

Rotation

Lane scientists also are examining annual ryegrass, sorghum and other crops that could be rotated with watermelons to furnish processing plants with a year-round supply of nutraceuticals or ethanol.

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