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Published March 27, 2013, 03:28 PM

ND begins 'energy beet' process study

The first beet-to-ethanol pilot plant in the nation recently was announced for construction in California. Meanwhile, North Dakota researchers are moving forward on studies to determine if a similar idea will be feasible there.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

The first beet-to-ethanol pilot plant in the nation recently was announced for construction in California. Meanwhile, North Dakota researchers are moving forward on studies to determine if a similar idea will be feasible there.

If all goes as expected, North Dakota’s beet-to-ethanol commercialization might start in two years, says Maynard Helgaas of West Fargo, president of Green Vision Group. “I feel optimistic that once we get the research done, our financial (situation) is going to look pretty good.”

A single plant is projected to cost up to $65 million. Some of that will depend on positive results from scientific studies.

One key North Dakota study is just starting, Helgaas says. In this storage and processing study, the energy beets are crushed and not sliced in refined sugar production.

Lead researcher Igathi Cannayen, a North Dakota State University assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, is located at the Northern Great Plains Agricultural Laboratory at Mandan, N.D., which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

Cannayen says 10 tons of beets were provided by American Crystal Sugar Co. for the study. Some were repacked into plastic 18-gallon totes and placed in a 10-by-10-by-7 foot walk-in freezer, recently acquired for the purpose. Some were left in bulk.

“Each tote will hold about 50 pounds of beets,” Cannayen says. “Each will be taken out and will pass through the equipment.”

The equipment is expected to arrive in early May and will include a crusher, which can be used with different screen sizes, and a press. The crusher is essentially a hammer mill that will push the beet material through different screen sizes, producing different particle sizes. Among other things, Cannayen will study how much energy it takes to push the beets through the screens, as well as the optimal combination of processing and juice recovery.

Crushed beets will go through a basket- or wine-press, similar to what is used in wine-making. Once the pulp has been pressed, it will be mixed with hot water for a second, third or fourth washing to extract as much sugar as possible. Eventually, the scientists will be studying the optimal speed of processing.

Collaborating scientists are working on separate aspects of the process, Cannayen says. For example, Dennis Wiesenborn, an NDSU chemical engineer in Fargo is studying the effects of storing whole beets at various temperatures, controlling and monitoring them for gaseous output. Some of those beets will be shipped to Mandan for secondary testing.

Helgaas says other studies are ongoing on the agronomic side of the energy beet potential.

NDSU scientists are studying how energy beets can be used on saline soils, for example, as well as irrigated and nonirrigated conditions. A new plot for yield data will be added in Cando, N.D. Plot results were favorable across the state last year, despite the drought.

In Calif.

Meanwhile, California is on a similar path, Helgaas says. He says that project involves year-round ethanol production with beets that are planted and harvested in stages.

At Five Points in California’s Central Valley, farmers who once grew 330,000 acres of sugar beets for Spreckles Sugar Co., are trying to revive the crop for ethanol production. All but one beet sugar mill has been closed in the Imperial Valley, according to news reports.

The farmers have formed Mendota (Calif.) Bioenergy LLC, a company to build the energy beet demonstration plant, which will to turn 250 acres of beets into 285,000 gallons of ethanol per year — a small plant by commercial standards. If successful, the farmers would push for development of a larger, commercial-scale plant.

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