NDSU spearheads sugar beet-to-ethanol project

By Erin Voegele
Posted September 24, 2009, at 10:59 a.m. CST

Attendees at North Dakota State University's bioenergy event Sept. 22, titled Northern Plains Bioeconomy: What Makes Sense? were given the opportunity to learn about a project spearheaded by NDSU that seeks to establish sugar beet ethanol production facilities within the state.

According to Cole Gustafson, a professor in NDSU's Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, the primary goal of the project is to develop a new industry in North Dakota that will help build local economies. "We are trying to develop an industry in North Dakota that is locally owned and provides economic opportunities to the region," he said.

Gustafson said there are a variety of reasons why sugar beet ethanol production makes sense. Unlike many cellulosic technologies, he said that sugar ethanol production is a well-established process and that considerable quantities of sugarcane-based and sugar beet-based ethanol are currently produced in South America and Europe. "It's a proven technology," Gustafson said. "It's not exploratory."

When compared with corn ethanol, Gustafson said sugar-based ethanol yields nearly twice the amount of ethanol per acre of production. It also offers a number of advantages from a climate change perspective, which results in lower life-cycle carbon emissions. For example, sugar beet cultivation requires less nitrogen input and less water, and Gustafson said NDSU's production process is expected to reduce feedstock transportation needs.

Gustafson also spoke of the second stage of the renewable fuels standard (RFS2), and the advanced biofuel requirements of that proposed rule. The RFS2 establishes four different classes of renewable fuels, each with its own respective volume mandate and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction requirement. Ethanol produced from sugarcane and sugar beets is uniquely positioned to meet one of these four requirements, the advanced biofuel requirement, which mandates a 50 percent reduction in life-cycle GHG emissions when compared to a baseline fuel. "Obviously, we raise a lot of sugar beets in this area, so we feel it's going to be a unique comparative advantage for this region," Gustafson said.

As part of the project, researchers are currently investigating the establishment of five irrigated sugar beet production regions around the state. Gustafson said they are looking at using irrigated sugar beet cultivation for the project because it results in a significantly higher sugar beet yield, which will allow crop production to be concentrated into a smaller area and result in reduced transportation costs.

As a way to further reduce the GHG emissions, a future ethanol plant will likely employ a patented process in which waste liquid created by the ethanol production process is spray dried and used to provide heat to the facility. "We've determined that up to 75 percent of the plant's thermal heat can be met with this process," Gustafson said.

According to Gustafson, researchers are currently working to complete a feasibility study for the construction of a 20 MMgy facility that would produce 26.5 gallons of ethanol per ton of sugar beet feedstock. "Our initial statistics show that we have a break-even production cost of ethanol at $1.48 that is assuming the sugar beets are priced at about $42 per ton," he said. In addition to producing ethanol, the facility would also produce livestock feed and potash fertilizer coproducts.

In addition to completing the feasibility study, the researchers have also established irrigated sugar beet trials in two areas of the state. In 2010, those trials will be expanded into other areas of the state with the goal of obtaining enough yield history to move forward with commercial production. Gustafson said these crops trials are important because documented historical data on growing sugar beets in new areas of the state is needed in order for future feedstock suppliers to secure federal crop insurance on the crop. In the coming year, Gustafson said work will also be done to complete a lifecycle GHG emissions analysis and secure feedstock suppliers and marketing agreements. He said the hope is to establish a demonstration plant by 2011, and begin construction on a commercial facility in 2012.