It stands 130 feet tall, 185 feet in diameter, can hold 1.3-million-hundredweight of sugar and cost $44 million dollars to construct – it’s the brand new sugar dome built by American Crystal near Chicago and it’s open for business.
While owned by American Crystal, the transload facility will be leased and maintained by United Sugars Crop. Based out of Bloomington, Minn., United Sugars is the largest sugar marketing company in the country and represents American Crystal, Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative and U.S. Sugar Corp – America’s largest sugarcane producer, based in Clewiston, Fla. The greater Chicago area is the largest market for sugar coming out of the Red River Valley, accounting for up to 25%. "[The sugar dome] will cut down on some costs and help us get sugar out of the Red River Valley at the appropriate time," said American Crystal business development manager, Aaron Bjerke. "Chicago is big market and the sugar ends up coming here anyways." Instead of coming up with alternative storage techniques in the Red River Valley, the sugar gets shipped and stored near Chicago, which allows it to reach customers more efficiently. The dome will be filled from November through February, and maintained at capacity from February through May – when the factories finish slicing. Inventory will then be shipped out to at or near zero until the new crop begins to get shipped in the following year. The sugar will be received via railcars and they are unloaded by screw conveyors and bucket elevators into the dome. "The sugar comes out of a railcar in building adjacent, goes underground through a tunnel and screw conveyors, goes up an elevator across the top [of the dome] and gravity feeds into the dome. The dome then fills up," continued Bjerke. When unloading the dome, the process is basically reverse. The dome feeds through a tunnel underneath into screw conveyors and back through a bucket elevator. It then goes through a screening process and metal detection equipment and into bulk tanks. From there the sugar is loading into trucks, which are placed on scales to allow for precise weighting. Within the dome, cutting edge technology has been implemented to assure maximum efficiency and safety. "Because sugar dust is combustible, we’ve put dust collection everywhere and have placed explosion panels on the dome and on our truck tanks. We’ve put sodium bicarbonate canons on our elevators – they act similar to fire extinguishers – so if we did have a combustible dust explosion, our systems will vent it or will extinguish it." In recent years, the National Fire Protection Association has set a new set of standards when it comes to fire prevention. "American Crystal has been on the front edge of that, working to make sure that everything is safe and properly protected." Another advanced feature of the dome heat-trace cable on the inside, within the concrete. That allows the dome walls to be a consistent 85º F, which keeps the dome at an optimal temperature for prevent condensation or humidity localization that can cause sugar crusting. Above the sugar, the air space is conditioned to a specific temperature and humidity. "The dome is incredibly strong. It features six of those explosion panels, which are 500 square feet each. The structure itself was designed to handle eight atmospheres during an explosion and most of that is contributed to its shape." Aside from the strength the dome offers, it is also very cost-effective. Many other structures were considered in the initial planning stages, including a Weibull storage bin similar to that at American Crystal’s Hillsboro, N.D. factory, but the dome prevailed to reign supreme. "The Weibull bins are built for conditioning sugar. They have special attributes that allow them, when they are attached to a factory, to deal with sugar in a different way. The dome is not attached a factory’s production so the sugar that is shipped to the dome has already been conditioned, so we don’t have to employ the same techniques. Furthermore, the dome is a cheaper alternative to a Weibull bin. "The other alternative we looked were concrete silos, like a slipform you would see at a grain elevator. The reason we didn’t do that was because the dome is so massive, it would have taken four concrete silos to equal the dome. When you have four silos, your redundancy is increased, which then adds cost. So the economy of scale came into play with the dome and made it the cheapest option." As it sits, the property is organized so a second dome could be constructed if everything works according to plan.