LSU AgCenter researchers recently completed a study that examines the marketing and economic feasibility of using sugarcane rind as a supplemental raw material for manufacturing oriented strand board (OSB) and similar products.
They say the process is technically and economically feasible and that it shows some promise – although the experts stop short of saying it will be the next major use for sugarcane.
Structural wood-based composites such as OSB are gaining increased use in both residential and commercial applications, according to Dr. Qinglin Wu of the LSU AgCenter. It is widely used as sheathing, flooring and I-joist materials in construction.
With the cost of wood fibers more than doubling in the past 20 years, alternative materials for OSB production are of great practical significance.
Wu, the Roy O. Martin Sr. Professor of Composites/Engineered Wood Products in the LSU AgCenter’s School of Renewable Natural Resources, has been working for years to incorporate sugarcane rind, a useful byproduct from sugarcane processing, into OSB.
"In general, the economics are favorable," Wu says, and another LSU AgCenter scientist adds the process is technically feasible.
"It can be done from a technical standpoint," says Dr. Richard Vlosky, director of the Louisiana Forest Products Development Center in the LSU AgCenter’s School of Renewable Natural Resources. "The technology is there. Someone would have to invest either in a stand-alone facility or an add-on to a current processing facility."
The researchers say sugarcane has three layers – an outer wax, the rind and pith, which contains the sugar.
Wu says a separation facility adjacent to a sugar mill could divide the cane into its various parts, supplying juice to the mill while the rind could be shipped off to be used for OSB, the wax could be diverted into a "biorefining" process and the pith could be used for other products.
"The potential is there," Wu says. "A lot of components can be extracted – though some technical issues have to be worked out."
Vlosky says their research shows growers are looking at alternative crops or alternative uses for sugarcane.
To learn about how the market might react to incorporating sugarcane rind into OSB, the researchers surveyed Louisiana sugarcane growers and processors and southern OSB manufacturers.
Nearly three-quarters of the sugarcane growers who responded to the survey said they produced less sugarcane in 2004 than in 2003. About half said they have considered farming crops besides sugarcane, and nearly a third said they have considered growing sugarcane for products other than sugar. Almost nine out of 10 growers said they would grow sugarcane for rind production if it was more profitable than growing sugarcane for sugar.
Sugarcane plant managers said sugar prices have declined or remained constant for the past five years. More than two-thirds said they would be willing to use sugarcane varieties for rind instead of sugar if it was more profitable, and more than half said they would switch production to rind if necessary.
The researchers also sent surveys to 34 composite board manufacturers in the South, and four OSB producers returned surveys. The four plants represent approximately 600 employees.
They reported that raw materials prices increased over the past five years. Two companies said they have considered using non-wood raw materials, including straw, bamboo and sugarcane rind. All said they would be willing to use sugarcane rind as a raw material if it was found to be structurally viable and profitable.
Vlosky says the project could be done with Louisiana manufacturers of OSB as partners.
Regarding OSB made with a combination of wood and sugarcane rind, Vlosky says, "The product itself is solid from a structural standpoint. A 50-50 combination of sugarcane rind and wood is actually stronger than just wood alone. Given reasonable assumptions, this is economically viable."
Dr. Mike Salassi in the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness and Dr. Ben Legendre, an LSU AgCenter sugarcane specialist, also participated in the research study.
"We are not in the position to say that this will be the next major use for sugarcane," Legendre says. "But it is a start, and the preliminary information looks promising thus far."
The research was jointly funded by the American Sugar Cane League and Louisiana Economic Development.
Richard Vlosky at (225) 578-4131 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Qinglin Wu at (225) 578-4131 or email@example.com
Ben Legendre at (225) 642-0224 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Writer: Rick Bogren at (225) 578-5839 or email@example.com