Sugarcane waste can be used to produce fuel, diversify sugar industry

- ILO study


By Vishani Ragobeer

The waste of the sugarcane, known as bagasse, can be used to create second-generation ethanol for fuel, which can be a profitable agro-energy investment in the diversified sugar industry, a recent study concluded.

On Thursday, an International Labour Organization (ILO) study on the socio-economic impact of the closure of four local sugar estates between 2016 to 2017 was released. The estates were closed due to economic considerations but this study found that the shutdown resulted in significant hardships for thousands of people.

Cognisant of the current government’s aim to reopen these estates, revitalise the sugar industry and restore livelihoods, the study made key recommendations on how the local sugar industry can be diversified and made profitable. One such recommendation was the creation and use of cellulosic ethanol from sugarcane.

The production of cellulosic ethanol, the study related, differs from the production of first-generation biofuels which are made from the food crops themselves (in this case, the actual sugar cane). Instead, cellulosic ethanol could be made from the waste material (bagasse) after the sugar has been extracted.

“The particular ‘advanced biofuels investment that is being proposed for the sugar industry could co-exist with any proposal to use natural gas to generate power, as the cellulosic ethanol that will be produced would be like ‘off-grid energy’ that will be used largely by the transport sector that itself could be expected to grow as the economy expands,” the report stated.

Importantly, it was also noted that consideration could also be given to developing a biorefinery to produce ethanol and other “high-value” chemicals.

This refinery, it was explained, would allow for the reduction of the costs to produce the cellulosic ethanol and also allow for further diversification of the industry, since other organic materials such as rice straw and sawdust could be used to produce other commercial-scale, high-valued co-products.

This, the report posited, could enhance the profitability of the core cellulosic ethanol facility.

Speaking at the launch of the report on Thursday, local economist and Director of the University of Guyana’s (UG) GREEN Institute, Dr. Thomas Singh affirmed, “This increasing returns of scale cellulosic ethanol recommendation for the sugar industry will enhance even the profitability of the sugar industry.”

Dr. Singh, who authored the ILO study, posited that the production and use of cellulosic ethanol was a more environmentally-friendly investment that could contribute to both livelihood sustainability and security.

“This will add renewable energy as a major component of Guyana’s energy portfolio and create ‘green jobs’,” he said too.

Importantly, Dr. Singh posited that using cellulosic ethanol would also help Guyana maintain its commitment to the United Nations (UN) Paris Agreement on Climate change, which calls for sustainable development in light of climate change.

The report, however, acknowledged that the cost for producing cellulosic ethanol is “still too high for it to be easily and unequivocally commercially viable” but added that there are avenues that can result in the reduction of the costs of production.

These avenues include the integration of biotechnology and research and development in the chemical process of production and the use of “coproducts” that are produced with ethanol.

“The prospects for the stand-alone commercial viability of cellulosic ethanol, either by consolidated bioprocessing and/or coproduct development in biorefineries, are steadily improving even if examples of particular plants that are now commercially feasible do not pervade this nascent industry,” the report stated.

It added, “The argument for ‘big push’ green industrialization rests precisely on the idea that a set of complementary investments might well be commercially viable even if the constituent investments are not when considered on their own.”

These complementary investments, Dr. Singh explained, can be guided by a national investment and diversification strategy that could help to diversify the economy in ways that would counterbalance the price volatility that characterises commodity markets such as the sugar and oil industries.

Meanwhile, at the report’s launch on Thursday, Senior Minister within the Office of the President with responsibility for Finance, Dr. Ashni Singh said that the government will study some of the recommendations made by the report.

Already, however, he said that some of the recommendations coincide with the government’s thinking. Agro-energy, he said, was one avenue being studied to help with the diversification of the industry. As such, he acknowledged the information provided on the use and production of cellulosic ethanol.

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