Louisiana company to produce biomass briquettes

By Ryan C. Christiansen
Web exclusive posted August 22, 2008 at 9:31 a.m. CST

Raceland Raw Sugars Corp., a producer of sugar, molasses, and syrup in Raceland, La., has received $1.48 million in funding from a federal energy appropriations bill to build a facility that will create biomass briquettes from sugarcane bagasse.

Ultimately, the company plans to use gasification to convert the briquettes into synthesis gas and then into ethanol. The company will match the federal dollars with $1.9 million of its own funds.

"We need to find value-added products for our farmers. That's the bottom line," said Neville Dolan, plant manager in Raceland. "One of the only things that a cane farmer doesn't get value for is his fiber in his cane. And so we investigated from the beginning what we need to do to get any sort of value for the fiber."

Dolan said the company currently stores about 100,000 tons of bagasse at the Raceland factory. The factory can process 15,000 tons of cane daily and 1.25 million tons annually. The bagasse fiber that is left over from processing cane to make sugar is fed to boilers to generate steam to power the factory. "It is our fuel to run the sugar mill when we're operating," he said. "But we only operate for three months of the year (from October through December), and so anything that's excess just gets put outside to storage, and we basically don't reuse it; it's wasted."

The excess fiber will be made into briquettes, Dolan said, and additional crop residue that is currently left behind in the sugarcane fields will also be collected. "Farmers blow the leaves and the tops back into the field and then burn them in the field," he said. "Once we get the briquette machine up and running, our farmers are going to be bringing that leaves and trash-what we call trash-into the mill. We're going to separate it here and that is also going to be made into briquettes so that they won't have to burn it in the fields anymore. We will be using it as fuel to make a fuel."

One of the advantages sugarcane growers have is that they already collect leaves and trash during the harvest, Dolan said. "The combine harvester already collects it and we blow it out," he said. "So instead of blowing it out, we'll just put it straight into the truck." The crop residue will be separated out after the truckload reaches the plant.

Initially, Dolan said, the plant will be able to process 75 tons of fiber into briquettes per day. He said the plant should be operational during the first week of June 2009. The company ordered the briquette-making equipment from a Brazilian supplier in mid-August, he said.

Ultimately, the Raceland briquetting operation might increase tenfold, he said. "This is just the kickoff," Dolan said. "It's really the first phase in getting these things all in. It's not a risky technology, because it's being done already on bagasse (in other parts of the world)," he said.

Because the bagasse will be dried to 10 percent moisture and compacted in a 9 to 1 ratio during the briquetting process, Dolan said an added benefit will be the reduction in odor from the bagasse piles at the plant.

The briquetting will begin next summer, but Dolan said he wouldn't put a date on when they might be producing ethanol from the briquettes. He said the company is taking conservative steps. "We wanted to make sure that we had the feedstock in a form that could be transported, stored, and used because you can't transport fiber if it's loose, you know, it's too expensive," Dolan said.

Raceland Raw Sugars is talking to investors who are looking at making ethanol or electricity from the briquettes, Dolan said. "The first guy who puts his shovel in the ground is going to win, basically," he said.

Dolan said the only ethanol production process the company has considered is synthesis gas conversion. "We're definitely looking at thermal conversion," he said. "We haven't looked at chemical conversion, because we just haven't looked at it. All of our trials have been on thermal." Dolan said the company already has successfully tested producing ethanol from the briquettes.