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Ethanol from Energy Beets: A Viable Option?

Submitted by on April 24, 2014 – 1:46 pmNo Comment

by Bruce Dorminey (Renewable Fuel World)  US farmers are exploring the use of energy beets to produce ethanol. Requiring less water and containing more sugar than corn, they could be just what the market needs.

Corn remains the undisputed ethanol king. But a growing number of U.S. sugar beet farmers, in part, exasperated by the heavily-regulated sugar industry, are now hoping to give corn a run for its bioenergy money.  By converting sugar from so-called non-food-grade “energy” beets into commercial-quality ethanol and biochemicals, these farmers eventually hope to take a significant chunk of corn’s existing U.S. ethanol market.

Garden variety sugar beets have long been farmed in the upper Midwest, parts of the Intermountain West, and California for conversion into table-quality sweeteners.  However, both entrepreneurs and farmers in California, Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Minnesota and North Dakota are all warming to the idea of growing these venerable tubers solely for their bioenergy content.

And unlike beets grown solely for food sugar; to date, industrial-quality “energy” beets have not been hamstrung by federally regulated acreage allotments.  In other words, their production for bioenergy conversion is basically only limited by available acreage and what the nearly 14 billion gallon annual U.S. ethanol market can bear.

Tischer said the company eventually expects to get three beet crops from the same ground in just two years, rotated with cotton, alfalfa, corn and tomatoes.  By using a combination of liquefaction, enzymes and heat instead of just traditional fermentation, he said the Mendota coop would need less purification to get to the finished ethanol product.

The Southeast also wants to get into the energy beet act, but for use as a winter crop in rotation with the South’s usual summer commodities like corn and peanuts.  Planting after the last corn harvests in late September, for instance, would allow for beet harvesting by April.

That would mean that farmers in the southeast could take advantage of nitrogen left in the ground from the previous corn crop.  That is, by using the beets’ deep six- to eight-foot tap roots to “mine” these nutrient-rich nitrates.

Although North America has not yet processed beets for commercial ethanol, in Europe, beet ethanol is already a fixture of the continent’s bioenergy mix, with France, Germany, Belgium and Greece leading production.  Some estimates indicate that the European Union could see production of 50 million hectoliters of bio-ethanol by 2020, or roughly a quarter of Europe’s demand.  Meanwhile, this year, Sugar Beet RSA in cooperation with the government of South Africa may open a $285 million “energy beet” plant with a starting production that would produce 90 million liters per year.   READ MORE and MORE (Biomass Magazine)

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