Sugar beets from Europe can help solve the conflict between food and bioenergy in the developing world.
“Sugar beets have greater energy content than sugar cane but require rotation with other crops,” explained Jan Öhrvall at the World Bioenergy conference in Jönköping, Sweden.
Öhrvall is working on a tropical sugar beet project being run by two companies: Anditec and Chematur Engineering. The beets originate in Europe but are being planted in Colombia to be a raw material in large-scale ethanol production.
Trials have shown that the sugar beets are superior to sugar cane in a tropical climate. The former grow faster and are ready for harvest after six to eight months. In contrast, sugar cane needs 12 to 14 months.
“Sugar beets can be planted and harvested year round, making it possible to produce ethanol without any interruption,” Öhrvall said.
The other main advantage is that sugar beets require crop rotation. In Colombia people need to grow wheat and other grains as food. The result is that farmers can get both a sugar beet harvest and a grain harvest per year from the same field, thereby reducing the conflict between food and bioenergy.
Tropical sugar beets bind the sun’s energy more efficiently than sugar cane. The end result is 16,000 litres of ethanol produced per hectare of sugar beet, which is almost twice as much as from sugar cane. In comparison, in the United States corn (maize) gives about 3,000 litres of ethanol per hectare.
“It makes sense to grow energy crops under the tropical sun,” Öhrvall concluded.
Needs half as much water
Another huge advantage is that sugar beet cultivation only requires half as much water as sugar cane cultivation does. This makes it possible to grow an energy crop on considerably larger tracts of land than is possible with other crops. The end result can be jobs and income in poor parts of Africa, South America, and other regions of the world with lots of sunshine.
Anditec and Chematur are working on similar projects in other parts of the world, including Europe, but in their experience energy should be produced where there is the most sun, and they believe sugar beets are the crop that does the best job.