EGEE 439
Alternative Fuels from Biomass Sources

6.2 Sugarcane Ethanol Production

6.2 Sugarcane Ethanol Production

Production of ethanol from corn will be discussed in the next section; this section will focus on sugarcane ethanol production. So, what needs to be done to get the sugar from sugarcane?

The first step is sugarcane harvesting. Much of the harvesting is done with manual labor, particularly in many tropical regions. Some harvesting is done mechanically. The material is then quickly transported by truck to reduce losses.

The cane is then cut and milled with water. This produces a juice with 10-15% solids, from which the sucrose is extracted. The juice contains undesired organic compounds that could cause what is called sugar inversion (hydrolysis of sugar into fructose and glucose). This leads to the clarification step in order to prevent sugar inversion.

In the clarification step, the juice is heated to 115°C and treated with lime and sulfuric acid, which precipitates unwanted inorganics.

The next step for ethanol production is the fermentation step, where juice and molasses are mixed so that a 10-20% sucrose solution is obtained. The fermentation is exothermic; therefore, cooling is needed to keep the reaction under fermentation conditions. Yeast is added along with nutrients (nitrogen and trace elements) to keep yeast growing. Fermentation can take place in both batch and continuous reactors, though Brazil primarily uses continuous reactors.

The figure below shows a schematic of one process for ethanol production, along with the option to produce refined sugar as well. Sugarcane contains the following: water (73-76%), soluble solids (10-16%), and dry fiber or bagasse (11-16%). It takes a series of physical and chemical processes that occur in 7 steps to make the two main products, ethanol and sugar.

Schematic of process of sugarcane to produce ethanol and sugar, see text description below
Schematic of the process of sugarcane to produce ethanol and sugar.
Click Here for a text alternative.

Here is a list of the seven stages of the sugar cane process, followed by a step-by-step explanation of the seven stages:

Stage 1: Extraction
Stage 2: Juice Treatment (leading to sugar)
Stage 3: Juice Treatment (leading to ethanol)
Stage 4: Multi Effect Evaporator
Stage 5: Crystallization, Drying
Stage 6: Fermentor
Stage 7: Ethanol Distillation
Explanation of the seven stages, beginning with Sugar Cane:

Stage 1 (Extraction) results in juice [also produces bagasse]. Juice is sent on to two possible stages: Stage 2 (eventually leading to sugar) or Stage 3 (eventually leading to ethanol).
Stage 2 produces Treated Juice [also produces cake].
Stage 3 produces Treated Juice. Treated Juice from Stage 3 is sent on to Stage 6 (Fermentor), while Treated Juice from Stage 2 is sent on to Stage 4 (Multi Effect Evaporator).
The result of Stage 4 (Multi Effect Evaporator) is syrup [this stage also produces vapor]. This syrup is sent on in several possible directions.
Option 1. The syrup finishes at Stage 5 (Crystallization, Drying), where the syrup becomes sugar [or sub-products].
Option 2. The syrup passes through Stage 5 (Crystallization, Drying), where the syrup becomes molasses, and then goes on to Stage 6 (Fermentor).
Option 3. The syrup goes directly to Stage 6 (Fermentor).
The result of Stage 6 (Fermentor) is wine. The wine is sent on to Stage 7.
The result of Stage 7 (Ethanol Distillation) is ethanol [this stage also produces sub-products].

So, why produce both sugar and ethanol? Both are commodity products, so the price and market of the product may dictate how much of each product to make. This is how Brazilian ethanol plants are configured. In order to have an economic process, all of the products, even the by-products, are utilized in some fashion.

As noted previously, one of the major by-products is the dry fiber of processing, also known as bagasse. Bagasse is also a by-product of sorghum stalk processing. Most commonly, bagasse is combusted to generate heat and power for processing. The advantage of burning the bagasse is lowering the need for external energy, which in turn also lowers the net carbon footprint and improves the net energy balance of the process. In corn processing, a co-product is made that can be used for animal feed, called distiller grains, but this material could also be burned to provide process heat and energy. The figure below shows a bagasse combustion facility. The main drawback to burning bagasse is its high water content; high water content reduces the energy output and is an issue for most biomass sources when compared to fossil fuels, which have a higher energy density and lower water content.

Bagasse can have other uses. The composition of bagasse is: 1) cellulose, 45-55%, 2) hemicellulose, 20-25%, 3) lignin, 18-24%, 4) minerals, 1-4%, and 5) waxes, < 1%. With the cellulose content, it can be used to produce paper and biodegradable paper products. It is typically carted on small trucks that look like they have “hair” growing out of them.

sugar mill
The Usina Santa Elisa sugar mill in Sertaozinho, Brazil. Bagasse, a by-product of sugar production, can be burned for energy or made into ethanol.
Credit: Enerzine
bagasse- looks like dried, tan husks
Credit: "Ribeira Principal-Distillerie II-Canne à sucre déchiquetée" by Ji-Elle - Own work. via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Another crop that has some similarities to sugarcane is sorghum. Sorghum is a species of grass, with one type that is raised for grain and many other types that are used as fodder plants (animal feed). The plants are cultivated in warmer climates and are native to tropical and subtropical regions. Sorghum bicolor is a world crop that is used for food (as grain and in sorghum syrup or molasses), animal feed, the production of alcoholic beverages, and biofuels. Most varieties of sorghum are drought- and heat-tolerant, even in arid regions, and are used as a food staple for poor and rural communities. The figure below shows a picture of a sorghum field.

sorghum plants: tons of round orange brown clusters on the top of a stalk
Sorghum growing in Mississippi.

The US could use several alternative sugar sources to produce ethanol; it turns out corn is the least expensive and, therefore, the most profitable feed and method to produce ethanol. The table below shows a comparison of various feedstocks that could be used to make ethanol, comparing feedstock costs, production costs, and total costs. When you look at using sugar to make ethanol (from various sources), you can see processing costs are low, but feedstock prices are high. However, in Brazil, sugarcane feed costs are significantly lower than in other countries. Notice the data is from 2006.

Summary of estimated ethanol production costs ($/gal)a (Credit: USDA Rural Development)
Cost Item Feedstock Costsb Processing Costs Total Costs
UC Corn wet milling 0.40 0.63 1.03
UC Corn dry milling 0.53 0.52 1.05
US Sugarcane 1.48 0.92 2.40
US Sugar beets 1.58 0.77 2.35
US Molassesc 0.91 0.36 1.27
US Raw Sugarc 3.12 0.36 3.48
US Refined Sugarc 3.61 0.36 3.97
Brazil Sugarcaned 0.30 0.51 0.81
EU Sugar beetsd 0.97 1.92 2.89

a Excludes capital costs

b Feedstock costs for US corn wet and dry milling are net feedstock costs; feedstock for US sugarcane and sugar beets are gross feedstock costs

c Excludes transportation costs

d Average of published estimates