From Sweetening Your Coffee to Powering Your Car

Project investigates ‘energy beets’ as new source for ethanol.

by on Apr.06, 2011

A North Dakota group of investors plans to build a plant to demonstrate the feasibility of turning sugar beets – or energy beets – into ethanol.

Brazil has the world’s most successful ethanol economy, with sugarcane as the stock. The U.S. has the second most successful ethanol program, but it’s held back by the limitations of corn, the primary stock used here.

Why not switch over to sugarcane? The U.S. doesn’t have the climate to grow enough sugarcane, but we can grow sugar beets, a whole lot of sugar beets.


Beet It!

A group of North Dakota agribusiness specialists formed the Green Vision Group to explore sugar beets – actually, the company wants to use a variety called “energy beets” – as a stock for ethanol production. The group is planning to build a $20 million plant to demonstrate the viability of energy beets as an ethanol stock.

So maybe sugar beets could have a seat at America’s energy table. With the price of gasoline surging past $4 in some parts of the country, now might be the time to grow the ethanol market, which currently stands at 13.8 billion gallons, according to Danish biotech company Novozymes.

Cole Gustafson, a professor at North Dakota State University, thinks so. Gustafson, who is working with Green Vision on plans for the processing center, said sugar plants have an advantage over corn because they require one less processing step. Corn’s starches have to be converted to sugar before the conversion to alcohol.

Energy production is all about the energy conversion ratio. Until recently, corn ethanol actually took more energy to produce than it yielded. While corn ethanol has crossed the 1:1 threshold – that is one unit of energy for every unit of energy it takes to make the fuel – Gustafson said Green Vision is aiming for closer to 2:1.

Still, that’s a long way from Brazil’s energy ratio, which is between 8 and 10, depending on a variety of factors. Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said beet and cane sugars are similar for biofuel production, it would seem that there could be even more room for improvement of the beet-to-fuel process.

In fact, Green Vision is looking to Brazil to learn the details of ethanol production.

“That is the process we are developing,” Gustafson said.

One thing that could help are new varieties of beets developed specifically for maximum energy production. The “energy beets” it is working with now are not ideal for food production, but are good for energy production.

“The (seed companies) are aggressively developing new dedicated biofuel varieties,” Gustafson said.

Gustafson said beets could be grown across the northern third of the country. Some sources suggest that sugar beets could be grown in southern locations as a winter crop.

Green Vision is looking for a spot in North Dakota to build its pilot plant with hopes to break even on operations.

“The purpose is research to prove technology for a larger plant that will be profitable,” Gustafson said.

Andy Aden, an expert in cellulosic ethanol, said it would appear that sugar beets could yield more gallons of ethanol per acre than corn, but he’s skeptical about beets as part of the country’s energy solution.

“My biggest concern is how broadly this could be applied,” said Aden, senior chemical engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Aden said a major factor will be finding a use for the spent beets.

“Getting value for the spent beet fiber whether as a boiler fuel or whatever will be crucial,” Aden said.

Aden said the fact that Green Vision is using a nonfood sugar beet is important in the food vs. fuel debate.

“I don’t think this is applicable toward our national energy solutions as cellulosic biofuels are, but for state and rural economic development, it definitely has potential.” The NREL is investigating cellulosic ethanol. A prime source for cellulosic ethanol could be switch grass, which can be grown over a larger portion of the country.

Gustafson agrees that energy beet ethanol will never be a large factor in replacing petroleum.

“We don’t have enough acres. Corn will never do it either,” Gustafson said. “It will be one of many regional sources.”

A major problem with sugar beets is that from the moment they are harvested, their sugars begin converting to starch. Some experts have suggested that quick processing is critical so the sugars don’t convert to starch.

“We have a storage research study under way,” Gustafson said. “We also expect to benefit from European firms that are storing beets more than a year.”

If the pilot project is successful, Gustafson it would be possible to convert the country’s corn ethanol plants to sugar beet ethanol.

“The back half of the plant is identical,” he said.

Sean McAlinden, chief economist for the Center for Automotive Research, an Ann Arbor-based automotive think tank, said that while he’s not a fan of any kind of ethanol, sugar beets are a better solution than corn.

“We should not be growing corn for ethanol,” McAlinden said, adding that sugar beets have four times the energy content of corn.

“These biofuels are a bad idea,” he said.

McAlinden said natural gas is a better alternative fuel because it offers better emissions, is easier on automotive engines offers faster fueling than electric vehicles and is plentiful.

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