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Sweetening the ethanol mix

When gas is up and sugar is down, why not make gas — or ethanol — from sugar?

That’s what some sugar beet growers are asking — and recent test results suggest it might work for both sugar growers and corn ethanol plants.

In 1999, preliminary tests were completed at Broin and Associates Inc. in Sioux Falls, S.D., after representatives of the American Coalition for Ethanol and the Red River Valley Sugar Beet Growers Association contacted AURI. The groups were looking for uses for loan guarantee-forfeited sugar held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’ve proved at one ethanol plant that sugar was an accelerator (for ethanol fermentation). We want to prove that this is a reality across a broader range of different plants,” says Wayne Wagner, legislative liaison to the sugar beet growers executive board and a director of the American Coalition for Ethanol.

Full-scale plant tests, conducted in 2000 at Minnesota Energy in Buffalo Lake, Minn., showed that adding 1 to 4 percent sugar to fermenting runs has “no adverse effect on the fermentation process,” says Edward Wene, AURI biologist. Although more tests must be completed before the value of adding sugar to the corn ethanol process can be defined, Wene says the tests indicated sugar in amounts above 4 to 5 percent would leave excess sugar after fermentation.

Sugar guys like it

“As sugar growers, we’re in favor of having USDA pursue more research on this,” says Wayne Wagner. “There’s a project in USDA hands right now, sponsored by the North Dakota Corn Council, the American Coalition for Ethanol and the Northern Crops Institute … to take 100,000 tons of excess sugar and give it out to 10 ethanol plants to follow up on research that Ed (Wene) did. … We’ve shown support from the Minnesota Wheat and Barley Growers, North Dakota Grain Council, North Dakota and Minnesota Farm Bureaus, the Farmers Union, and rural electric (cooperatives). There’s a broad base of entities and people who would like to see the research go forward.”

The benefits, Wagner argues, include reducing USDA’s sugar storage costs and consumer energy prices, and a rally in U.S. sugar prices.

Wagner even sees sugar ethanol as a potential solution to imported Mexican sugar and air pollution south of the border. Instead of dumping sugar on the U.S. market, Wagner says, Mexico could use its excess to produce ethanol, a cleaner burning fuel.

Corn producers threatened?

Minnesota corn producers, who supply about 80 million bushels of corn per year to produce 220 million gallons of ethanol, might see added sugar as a threat, Wagner acknowledges. “That’s why we went through the research. As long as we consider it a (food), the price of sugar should never be competitive with corn. The idea is to use the government stock sugar to help the ethanol industry.”

In his report, Wene writes, “Some ethanol plants may be able to add supplemental sugar to the fermenters and continue to grind the same amount of corn. This would result in an increased amount of ethanol produced while still utilizing the same amount of corn.”

“The good thing is that the use of (government-held) sugar in the process is not a very costly scenario for the ethanol plants,” Wagner says. “In the short term, the economics work.”