CARRINGTON, N.D. - We may soon see sugarbeets being planted outside of the traditional production area as a new ethanol industry develops from processing what proponents call energy beets.

Studies currently underway at the North Dakota State University Carrington Research Extension Center are looking at the cultural practices and varieties of beets that would be a fit for ethanol production, rather than resulting in high quality sugar.

The Carrington station is coordinating five sites spread across the state: irrigated and dry land plots at Carrington; an irrigated plot at Oakes; a dryland and irrigated trials near Hannaford; an irrigated site north of Turtle Lake; and an irrigated site at the Williston Research Extension Center.

Last year at Carrington, the dryland trials yielded 17 to 27 tons per acre, while the irrigated plots yielded 22 to 29 tons per acre, according to Blaine Schatz, the Carrington station's director. They are expecting higher yields this year, however, because the crop was planted much earlier.

This is the third year of yield trials in the Oakes area, and those plots have been averaging around 38 tons per acre with a few varieties exceeding 40 tons per acre.

“We are evaluating sugarbeet performance in non-traditional growing areas of North Dakota,” Schatz said. “We're pretty excited at how sugarbeets performed here last year and what we are looking at here this year. Though the dryland beets may not have quite the vigorous plant stature as we see here in the irrigated plot, it shows how well sugarbeets adapt to the dryland production regions of the Drift Prairie Region.”

Jamestown, N.D. businessman Maynard Helgaas, who has been working with the Green Vision Group (GVG) to develop an energy beet processing plant, extolled the benefits of energy beets in ethanol production during the recent Carrington REC field day that was held July 20.

Standing in the midst of a healthy irrigated beet field, Helgaas said sugarbeets were selected for the study because of their high energy content and the fact that they are so adaptable to North Dakota.

“Making ethanol from sugarbeets is a very efficient process,” Helgaas noted. “It takes less energy than (converting) corn and produces twice the ethanol per acre than corn.”

As far as net energy from energy beets, one unit of input energy provides 9.28 units of energy as ethanol compared to a 4.52 unit return from crude oil. Since the plant design would reduce carbon emissions in excess of 50 percent the resulting ethanol would be labeled as an advanced biofuels, which means more government incentives, compared to regular corn-based ethanol.

Currently the GVC's goal is to have a plant in operation by 2012 somewhere in the vicinity of Griggs or Steele County. This would be a 20 million gallon per year plant and be able to use multiple feedstocks, although energy beets would be the most desired source.

The plant would draw beets from a 20 mile radius and involve production from 27,000 to 30,000 acres. All beets would be hauled directly to the plant and not stockpiled in remote locations as is the case with sugarbeets.

By drying and then burning the stillage from the beets - (the waste material remaining after fermentation), the facility would actually provide 75 percent of its energy needs and the water usage of the plant would be significantly lower than that of a corn-based ethanol facility, with one gallon of water needed to make one gallon of ethanol from energy beets.

Once the first plant is constructed, Helgaas figures it will be easy to add other energy beet plants in the state, using the same design. Other sites currently being considered include Oakes, Turtle Lake, Williston and Carrington.

According to Cole Gustafson, NDSU biofuels economist, energy beet plants have been in operation in Europe for many years. They are able to run the plants 12 months a year on energy beet production by either storing the beets in sealed bag systems, or extracting the juice from the beet and using just the juice. And since beet juice is easier to transport, extracting the juice from the energy beets would expand the area one plant can serve.

“They have been able to store beets for as long as two years in the bag systems and still be able to use the beets in the ethanol plant,” Gustafson said.

In addition, the plants would be able to use feedstocks such as sweet sorghum or molasses to produce ethanol. In fact, Helgaas expects that until the beet production situation is put in place, he expects molasses to fill a large part of the feedstock needs of the initial plant.

Agronomically, energy beets will require about the same amount of rainfall as corn to produce a crop, but the beets have a deep tap root that is capable of using both water and nutrients found deeper in the soil profile, that commonly escape the roots of other primary crops grown in the region. This long tap root could also reduce salinity problems in poorly drained soils and fracture the hard pan region in the soil profile allowing for internal drainage of the soil. And, according to Helgaas, growers would see a greater net return from an energy beet crop than they would from growing corn.

The project continues to move ahead. A grant proposal was recently approved by North Dakota's Renewable Energy Council in the amount of $330,000 that will be used to move the research efforts forward.

In addition, a commercial scale burn test of the stillage will be completed in about 10 weeks, according to Helgaas. If this test is successful, it would be possible to reduce the overall processing costs about 10 percent, which would mean a 7 percent increase in the return on investment.

source: farmandranchguide


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