Sugar beets, already grown in 11 states and across the world have been modified for ethanol production.  The new variety of the plant is called ‘energy beet’, something that ethanol users might want to be more aware of.

Sugarbeet Uprooted and Complete End of Year One Growth. Click image for the largest view.

Green Vision Group, is working to develop energy beets as a cleaner, more efficient alternative to corn.  The company’s figures from their small scale tests show that beets produce twice as much ethanol per acre as corn and require about 40 percent less water per gallon of ethanol produced. Using beets instead of corn also sidesteps the controversy associated with using a food product for fuel.

Green Vision Group president Maynard Helgaas said, “This is probably the most efficient use for an acre of land for biofuel as there is.” He might be right for the location, North Dakota, where it’s cold early in winter and late to see spring.  The idea for doubling ethanol production per acre that far north is an impressive concept.

Along with the pilot growing effort is the development of the process.  That comes from Heartland Renewable Energy, an Iowa company that developed much of the technology for the beet test plant. The technology includes a waste recycling system expected to provide about 70 percent of the plant’s power demand by burning the remaining beet material from sugar extraction. Once burned the ash can also be returned to the soil used as beet fertilizer.

Heartland president Rick Whittaker said he realized some time ago that corn wasn’t the most efficient candidate for ethanol. As he explored alternatives, he said, “It was clear to us the best bang for your buck was with beets.”

Green Vision hopes to produce 240 million gallons of ethanol per year out of North Dakota.  The plan is to start a pilot beet ethanol plant due up and running by 2012.  The test plant is expected to cost about $5 million. Green Vision Group is seeking money from the North Dakota Legislature.  That’s the trouble spot.  The bait for the legislators is the company plans to build a dozen larger production plants, with each expected to cost about $43 million. If it all works out commercial production of beets destined for ethanol could start by late 2013 or early 2014.

The problem isn’t the raw material; sugar beets are a common farm crop.  The technology for processing isn’t especially new, sugar to ethanol is a huge business using sugar cane and the sugar cane remnants are used in part to power the plants.  Nothing really new, not a huge risk – if any risk is seen from a process perspective.

The problem is the business model – getting the farmers to grow the energy beets and sell them to the processors.  Its uncharted territory, and corn the competing crop, makes just fine money right now.

On the other hand, North Dakota has about 220,000 acres of sugar beets in the 2010 crop.  That compares to 2,000,000 acres of corn – a bit more than 10% as much. The experience is there.  Which brings us to the “but”.

Plants that produce sugar in appreciable qualities hold the sugar in solution with water.  When a plant matures or is harvested the sugar changes over to much more stable starch.  To get the prized sugar, the processing needs to take place very quickly, just minutes for sweet corn such as in the grocery store to days or weeks for some sugar beet varieties.

Keeping the sugar intact usually requires refrigeration or freezing, cooking, or drying the sugar solution to delay the change over and attacks by micro-organisms.  The press reports aren’t discussing the Green Vision plans to deal with this.

That matter puts great pressure on the capital investment for processing.  Now sugar extraction, a front-end process for sugar beets, takes place very quickly at harvest followed by drying to yield the sugar used for food.  It’s not so capital intensive as ethanol production.

An ethanol plant should run 365 days a year for practical economic efficiency.  That means a processing step to preserve and store the sugar over months would need to be in place.  That investment and operating cost will come through to the cost to manufacture ethanol.

The question remains – can the sugar beet or energy beet processor pay more profit to farmers than a corn ethanol processor?  When that’s answered the business model will be matured for the better or a failure.

It’s probably worth it for North Dakota to put up $5 million to find out.  The Dakota’s are not in prime corn territory, and pretty far north for mainline grasses for cellulosic ethanol.  To get deeper in the alternative energy business the energy beet idea is something worth a practicing look – out of the lab and test plots.

The flip side is that energy beets might just prove to be a huge advantage over corn, doubling the production and increasing the ethanol supply with less land.  The sugar beet plant will grow all the way to the gulf coast.

Corn ethanol has shown the way – corn, soon sugar beets, sweet sorghum also with a nice sugar component, and likely macro algae in seaweed in the coming years will displace ever more petroleum gasoline perhaps as much as 75% – greatly improving the fuel supply.

Once the definitive cellulosic ethanol process is worked out at competitive to gasoline pricing, more investment will flow into ethanol feedstock plants across the planet.  We’ll be using fuels for transport for a very long time and with any luck avoid government-imposed costs, that might lead to cheaper fuel supplies.

A salute to Al Fin for spotting the news up in Fargo.


23 Comments so far

  1. jerry trancik on December 16, 2010 7:05 AM

    I don’t understand how can you make this statement?
    “Using beets instead of corn also sidesteps the controversy associated with using a food product for fuel.”
    60% of all the sugar in the US comes from sugar beets. As companies move away from corn sweeteners and into sugar it is putting pressure of the sugar supplies. Sugar right now is at all time highs. The US govt does not allow much imported sugar into the US, other than from Mexico which is not heavily taxed.
    In my opinion, whenever you use good farm land for anything other than food crops, or crops to feed livestock, you have a food vs fuel controversy. That is why it is so important to find a crop that can be grown in substandard soil and get fuel from that.
    Is it more efficient than corn? Yes, I will give it that and maybe should be used instead of corn. But it does not sidestep the food vs fuel issue.

  2. Alan Anderson on December 16, 2010 9:01 PM

    To Jerry,

    Sure it makes sense, do you know that the percentage of acres unused in America is around 40%. Farmers can rent these acres for pennies on the dollar and save thousands of farmer going under from the economy. Here in CA we have thousands of open farm acres waiting for someone to use them. Second issue, “A salute to Al Fin for spotting the news up in Fargo”. This story was out long before he wrote about it

  3. Brian Westenhaus on December 16, 2010 9:12 PM

    Hi Jerry,

    The ‘how’ is that the project uses a sugar beet that has been selected for fermentation rather than processed into food. Also an acre of energy beets would displace more than an acre of corn. Its better than just a sidestep, thus I make the correction here. Thanks for the prod to think more carefully.

    I’ll just skip over the price support with import limits and taxes that get paid by consumers.


  4. J.P. Katigbak on December 17, 2010 3:50 AM

    Better think carefully about what is needed for the utilization of new-generation biofuels, otherwise excessive politicking over the real issue affecting both energy and transportation sectors are likely to persist – unless there has to be a more meaningful dicussion about the need for increases in productivity levels for biofuel, especially those derived from algae-based biocrudes.

  5. pharmacy technician on December 26, 2010 8:43 PM

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

  6. USDA Permits Planting of GM Sugar Beets « – Organic Blog on February 8, 2011 10:45 AM

    […] New Energy and Fuel Related Posts :Organic Leaders Targeted in Approval of Monsanto's GM AlfalfaIn a surprising attack […]

  7. Burn ethanol, let people starve - Page 2 - CycloneFanatic on February 16, 2011 11:27 AM

    […] you'd see more such plants. I'm not so sure about that. I did a little checking out of curiosity: Sugar Beets May Push Corn Out of Ethanol Production | New Energy and Fuel Why Sugar Beets are Preferable to Corn for Ethanol Production | Oil […]

  8. rush is a liberal on February 26, 2011 11:47 AM

    The politics of any crop can be solved with one action. DELETE any and all crop subsidies

  9. Sage Zanth on March 26, 2011 3:57 PM

    “Using beets instead of corn also sidesteps the controversy associated with using a food product for fuel.”

    Really? Not if you are concerned at all about GMOs…

    Now USDA Has Deregulated Genetically Engineered Bio-Fuel Corn!

  10. Felipa Giessinger on May 19, 2011 12:45 AM

    I’ve been checking your blog for a while now, seems like everyday I learn something new 🙂 Thanks

  11. Senate to cut E85 funding - Page 2 - on June 17, 2011 12:03 PM

    […] the corn is HEAVILY subsidized thats what makes e85 tree fitty a gallon True, but check this out. Corn is not our only source for sugar. It isn't even our best source. IMHO, moving to […]

  12. Senate repeals ethanol subsidies - Page 8 - CycloneFanatic on June 21, 2011 5:54 PM

    […] production…they were calling it the energy beet. This might be the article that you saw. Sugar Beets May Push Corn Out of Ethanol Production | New Energy and Fuel But it doesn't give any hard numbers. And their assertion that they would use "less […]

  13. Senate repeals ethanol subsidies - Page 9 - CycloneFanatic on June 21, 2011 6:01 PM

    […] Originally Posted by TykeClone This might be the article that you saw. Sugar Beets May Push Corn Out of Ethanol Production | New Energy and Fuel But it doesn't give any hard numbers. And their assertion that they would use "less […]

  14. Deal Reached to End Federal Ethanol Subsidies - Page 2 - CycloneFanatic on July 9, 2011 8:08 AM

    […] permalink Originally Posted by rebecacy Ethanol should be made from sugar cane anyway – nearly 5 times more efficient manufacturing process. Exactly. The problem is the corn lobby has more money in the US so they pressure congress to give subsidies for HFCS and corn based ethanol. Regular sugar works so much better for food and fuel. Heck grow sugar beets in the midwest instead of corn for fuel. Let the free market work this out.…ol-production/ […]

  15. Williams Feusier on September 1, 2011 7:54 PM

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  16. John Q. Galt on October 2, 2011 8:40 AM

    “Using beets instead of corn also sidesteps the controversy associated with using a food product for fuel.”

    LOL. Sugar Beet isn’t a food??? It can’t be used whole for a feed??? The land and resources invested in Sugar Beets couldn’t also be used for food destined for starving Africans???

    Stealthy corn ethanol bashing.

  17. Andrew on November 18, 2011 5:42 PM

    Sugar beets arn’t “food” per se, nor are they widely used for feed (with an exception mentioned below), while edible, they’re grown expressly for their sugar content. Don’t confuse them with red beets.

    Also, the article says that sugar-beet processing is a front-end process that occurs immediately after harvest and mentions storage concerns, let me address that as someone who worked in the industry:

    Sugar beets are harvested in the late fall under specific temperature requirements. Dozens of large piles are made across the region and at the processing plants. These piles are then cooled and frozen in order to preserve the sugar content and prevent spoilage.(Note that most sugar-beet production is done in Northern latitudes where winter comes much earlier) The processing plants run 24/7 from September to April/May and beets are hauled from the piles to the processor.

    Concern about beet storage is misplaced, as there is already effective systems developed for this issue.

    Concern about effects on livestock feed production is also misplaced, as the remnants of the sugar-beets after processing are already used as livestock feed and fertilizer in the region.

    Also something to note is that the processing plants are already at maximum capacity. Each year up to 30% of the crop is left in the field as tonnage quotas are reached. This excess product could easily be utilized to the benefit of the farmer, the ethanol producer, and the consumer.

    Also something to note is that the average sugar content in a sugarbeet is 15-18% – far above both sweet-corn and genetically enhanced “ethanol” sweet-corn.

    Other countries are already using sugar-beets for ethanol production, we aren’t because the corn growers are a larger entitlement group and therefore get more attention from politicans.

    – Former industry worker.

  18. BubbaJuan on December 14, 2011 12:57 PM

    I think it might be more fuel efficient to have a small scale fermenter that can be put on a mobile platform like a truck go to the various farmers fields for processing directly into ethanol to avoid the energy cost associated with chilled storage. Once the beets are turned to alcohol, its stable. I don’t know about the feasability of it. I know it takes a bit of time for the fermentation process to occur. It has the potential to save hauling around the beets as well.

  19. carlos on February 22, 2012 10:34 AM

    It is absurd to have a serious discussion about alternative fuels without talking about the big pink elephant in the middle of the room, HEMP, it is about time we stop horsing around with tiny little plants that give you a fraction of what a hemp tree would give you, and the hemp seed by product can be fed to livestock, please consider hemp as better alternative.

  20. Matt on September 10, 2012 12:56 PM

    This comment is directed at Jerry, even though I fully realize a year and a half have passed since he commented.

    Here are things to keep in mind.

    1.) As has been mentioned, this Energy beet is more efficient (both land and water wise) at producing Ethanol. This means that if you want to produce the same amount, you’ll have mor eland left over to grow something else (like corn or traditional sugar beets)

    2.) Corn is a subsistence crop for a lot of people. If corn prices go up, a lot of people in the world wind up not being able to afford to eat. Refined sugars aren’t. We might all be better off if refined sugars go up in price…

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  22. USDA Permits Planting of GM Sugar Beets on November 9, 2013 6:13 PM

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  23. Dermott Reilly on December 10, 2015 3:15 AM

    New technologies are making an impact in both the Ethanol fermentation process ( yields up from 5% to 8% )and control of bacteria reducing sweetness of sugar(yield up by average of 30%). The good news is that these innovations are 100% based on green technology and will transform the profitability of this sector for all stakeholders.

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