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The Development of Sugar Cane-Based Products

The technology in the development of sugar cane as a biochemical received a boost in Brazil in 1975 but the initial experimentation actually began in the 16th century. Martim Afonso de Souza, a Portuguese conqueror, brought Brazil’s first sugar cane technology from Madera and the Azores Islands. From that point until the 1930’s the use of sugar cane was concentrated on production for a sweetener.

For the most part, manpower was used to extract the sugar juice. Sugar mills were converted to usinas and they prospered as Brazil came to rely upon sugar cane as a major export. Brazilian President Getulio Vargas found that the addition of 5 percent ethanol to gasoline was an effective way to produce steam. This led to the mix of sugar and ethanol in the 1930s.

In the 1990’s, the Bazilian energy market capitalized upon its most productive crop and began to convert the “bagasse surplus present in the usina into bioelectricity in high-pressure boilers.” The energy was then sold to the grid. At this time, the sugar cane market in Brazil became deregulated and scientists immediately began experimentation with the product for multiple purposes. Now, the modern day usinas manufacture sweeteners, biofuels and bioenergy.

The Production of Sugar Cane-Based Chemicals

Sugar cane–based chemicals are produced in one of two ways: alcohol chemistry and sugar cane fermentation.

Alcohol Chemistry

This manufacturing process consists of two technologies; alcohol fermentation and catalytic processors. Alcohol fermentation has been a useful technology since about 7,000 B.C. However, this technology suppressed the development of ethanol production. Ethanol production relies heavily on the second necessary technology, catalytic processes.

Through catalytic processes, high yields are achievable through the combination of high pressure and high temperatures. This requires substantial investment in the machinery to create this environment, but catalytic processes are at the core of the modern chemical industry.

It is important to note that when comparing alcohol chemistry with petro-chemistry, alcohol chemistry does not measure up successfully for cost effectiveness through economies of scale. For the most part, alcohol-based chemistry products do not compare favorably in terms of cost in mass production against petro-chemical-based products.

In 2010, DOW Brazil S.A. announced it would continue the company’s plan to fully integrate the production of sugar cane-based polyethylene. Solvay Indupa S.A.I.C. will concentrate on producing PVC from ethanol at the plant in Sano Andre-SP, Brazil.

Sugar Cane Fermentation

During the fermentation off sugar cane, the sugar is converted by a microorganism to the desired compound. Most cultures are familiar with ethanol fermentation.

The fermentation route for sugar cane is a very different process than the combination of fermentation and catalytic processes. Fermentation requires different equipment and a different production cycle and is an extremely cost-effective production process.

Fermentation can be conducted at temperatures between 30 and 36 degrees C and at atmospheric pressure. This is opposed to the catalytic process, which requires high temperatures and high pressures. Therefore, the equipment expenditures for the fermentation system are much less than for the catalytic process.

Other significant differences lie in the purification processes. With sugar cane fermentation, many of the conversion steps are managed by a single microorganism in a single reaction vessel. Fewer purification steps are required and there is greater flexibility for biological improvement than is offered by the catalytic process. These biological improvements can be performed without any new equipment expenditure. In terms of economies of scale, the fermentation process is a more fluid and less expensive alternative.

The sugar cane fermentation process has improved from new developments in biotechnology. These improvements include Metabolic engineering, Proteomics and Metabolomics.

Advancements in these technologies have paved the way for new pathways in microorganisms, which in turn have improved performance of the sugar cane-based products.

Most biodegradable plastics are produced using the cost-effective fermentation system. Polyhydroxybutrate (PHB) is a biopolymer obtained through the fermentation of sugar cane in a fully renewable concept. At the end of the fermentation, the cells are recovered and used as biomass for energy production.

Fermentation is a process being used by manufacturers on many other products and much of the exciting new experimentation is being conducted in Brazil. A mixture of solvents including acetone, butanol and ethanol (ABE) was originally discovered by Chai Weizman in 1916, when acetone production first began. ABE fermentation was used extensively in Europe, South Africa and China in industrial capacities until the 1990’s. These products were used as chemical building blocks for solvents and biofuel.

Conclusion

Sugar cane-based products like polythene have the potential to change the plastics industry and reverse the negative environmental impact of most plastic products. Considering the zero carbon nature of the products and the use of the waste as biomass for energy production, using sugar cane-based products is the responsible and cost effective route for consumers and businesses.

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