In 1922, F.B. Silverwood wrote the lyrics to "Honolulu, I'm Coming Back Again," which included the line, "I seem to see the waving sugar cane." The cane waves no more on Oahu, but if plantation agriculture does come back, it might come back as waving sorghum.
Sorghum - a genus of grasses, some raised for grain - would be harder to work into hapa-haole lyrics than cane, but it could be part of the answer to fuel self-sufficiency for Hawaii.
It is one of the crops that Hawaii BioEnergy will be exploring, according to its new chief executive officer, Paul Zorner.
He had been the company's chief scientific officer for several years.
Hawaii BioEnergy is a venture of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., Kamehameha Schools and Grove Farms, along with several other tech and venture capital firms. The principal backers have one thing in common: lots of land.
In a telephone interview from San Diego, Zorner said the mission he has been given, "in concert with the community of Hawaii," is to develop practical biofuels, with a secondary hope of helping "to jump-start the green economy."
Cane is still the most productive crop for conversion to ethanol, Zorner said, with some new varieties of high-fiber cane offering twice the yield of sugar varieties.
Sorghum, also a grass, is not as good a converter of sunlight, but Zorner, a botanist and entrepreneur who grew up on a farm in Oregon, said the goal is to find the crop that provides the best return "per unit of land and per unit of water."
With a legal mandate to return irrigation water to natural streams, sorghum could have an edge, since it uses only about one quarter as much water as cane.
Hawaii's home-grown energy solutions will include many answers, said Zorner, including solar and wind, and both field crops and, possibly, marine algae grown for its oil.
Hawaii BioEnergy has a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (the people who really invented the Internet) to develop bio jet fuel from algae, with a push from U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
The military buys a lot of jet fuel in Hawaii.
For the past two years, Zorner has been setting up a cane to ethanol and electric power venture in Mozambique.
He points out that a cane plant has one third of its potential fuel in its juice, one third in the bagasse and one third in the tops and leaves.
He is looking for multiple input-multiple output ag systems. With cane juice made to ethanol, the byproduct is called vinesse, and it is troublesome because of its smell. (Brazilian ethanol is cheap in part because many Brazilian ethanol plants just dump the vinesse, smell and all.)
But put through the equivalent of a sewage treatment plant, Zorner said, more fuel feedstock can be recovered, along with a final effluent that could be a valuable fertilizer.
He said he is looking for a system in which everything is used and recycled.
For example, another candidate crop, peanuts, produces oil
in the seed, another kind of oil in the hull, and when the seed has been pressed, the residue is animal feed. Some newer
varieties of peanuts, although they don't taste very good, produce three times as much seed as conventional varieties.
Zorner said he is concerned that whatever practical direction Hawaii BioEnergy takes, it does not lock itself into some inflexible "footprint," because the technology is changing very fast.
He has worked in both academic agriculture (college and kindergarten through 12th grade) as well as a variety of projects - not all of them successes - on five continents: Africa, Australia, North America, Asia and Europe.
These include an Oahu venture, Kuehnle AgroSystems, which has been working on the oil-from-algae track for several years.
Zorner will soon be moving to Hawaii, Oahu, where Hawaii BioEnergy has its headquarters, although it has access to land on Maui and other islands.
It is looking for "the most sustainable source of biomass." Zorner's view is comprehensive. He wants a crop whose waste stream also can be exploited: for example, using the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation to enhance the growth of algae.
The potential fuels include ethanol, oils that can be converted to diesel or jet fuel and methane gas.
The most common biofuel process in the United States now is conversion of corn to ethanol. This is not efficient, and Zorner said it would be better to get away from the idea of converting starch to fuel.
By going direct from sugar - meaning there is no need for the plant to convert sugar to starch, which humans then convert back to sugar - to fuel, an overall gain in productivity is the payoff.
Zorner would like to avoid the food vs. fuel controversy by finding ag systems that combine food plus fuel.
"Try not to throw away anything," he said.
In Hawaii, he is looking to restore plantation agriculture, although he likes to call it the "plantation estate," a "mosaic" that encompasses small fruit and vegetable farmers taking advantage of an overall interlocking system.
That includes an educational component, because among the goals is to create jobs. "They will be a different class of jobs," he said, requiring high levels of education.
Hawaii BioEnergy has been in existence for two years but was primarily exploratory until now. With the appointment of new managers, it is prepared to move on to the development stage.
Zorner said that in his 25 years of academic work, he was often frustrated because research was not exploited for practical ends.
Hawaii, he said, has an agricultural resource and historical tradition that is just waiting to be redirected toward energy independence.
Harry Eagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.