Linda Benedict, Day, Donal F., Rein, Peter W. | 4/19/2005 10:28:59 PM
The LSU AgCenter’s Audubon Sugar Institute and the Michigan Biotechnology Institute have been awarded a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The award, announced July 1, provides first-year funding for a four-year project to produce value-added products from bagasse and molasses, according to Dr. Peter Rein, head of the Audubon Sugar Institute.
Bagasse, the fibrous material that remains after sugar is pressed from sugarcane, currently is burned as fuel in sugarcane mills, but the researchers hope to increase the value of what is now considered a waste product.
"The focus is adding value to cane biomass," Rein said. "This will allow the processors to get revenue from something other than the sugar."
The cooperative venture with the Michigan Biotechnology Institute, a nonprofit spinoff of Michigan State University, came about because that organization has a process for treating bagasse and other vegetative residues to convert them to sugars – which then can be fermented into ethanol, an alternative to gasoline.
"We believe there are other products with more value than ethanol," Rein said.
The federal government has targeted agricultural byproducts as resources for energy, said Dr. Donal Day, a researcher at the Audubon Sugar Institute.
"They’re putting up the money to get ethanol off the ground," he said. "And sugarcane is the most efficient converter of solar energy to biomass."
Rein said biorefining can convert bagasse into fermentable sugars that produce higher-level alcohols and organic acids.
"The challenge is economics," he said. "We can do it in the lab. The technology is there, but the economics aren’t there yet to be commercially viable."
Rein said one advantage of bagasse as a source of biomass is it’s already being delivered to sugar mills. Other products, such as corn stalks, have to be collected from the field.
"Six mills in the Jeanerette area can produce one-half million tons of surplus bagasse and 150,000 tons of molasses every year," he said.
Day said the Audubon Sugar Institute has the capacity to move research from the laboratory to a pilot plant and eventually work with industry to bring the process into full production.
"Over the years, we’ve developed the equipment and the expertise," Rein added.
If the research proves fruitful, the process could result in establishing an industry that could produce annual revenues in the range of $250 million with $23 million worth of raw products from Louisiana sugar mills, the experts say.
Rein estimates commercialization of the process would require initial investments of around $140 million.