The University Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) Resource Science and Technology Faculty's pilot project to utilise sago starch as an alternative substance for sugar production is expected to produce one tonne of sugar per day by Christmas this year.

Professor Dr Kopli Bujang, head of the faculty's research team, is confident that big companies would be keen to develop sago starch as a new source of commercial sugar once more pharmaceutical analysis is conducted.

"The good thing is sago sugar is as sweet as glucose with less than 50 per cent calories, so it is good for diabetic people," he said on the sidelines of the second Asean Sago Symposium at Unimas here.

The symposium was opened by Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud today.

Kopli said at Unimas' pilot facility, sago sugar is produced after five to six hours by enzymatic hydrolysis of sago starch at 90 degrees Celsius with 100 per cent recovery, compared to only about seven to 10 per cent for fresh sugar of one tonne for about 100 kg of sugar.

Currently about 50 kg of sugar per day is produced from 50 kg of sago starch.

Depending on the demand for lactic acid and ethanol, which is still expensive to produce as biofuel from sago starch, production of sago sugar would be more economically viable, especially as the country imports 90 per cent of sugar from abroad at the moment, Kopli said.

He said research on the production started in 1999 and the first report was published in the annual report of IC-Biotech, Osaka University in 2000 based on the work of his team and Professor Emeritus Dr Ayaaki Ishizaki of Kyushu University in Japan.

Earlier, Taib urged the local industry to develop sago plantations, including on peat soil in the major sago growing area of Mukah, taking into consideration proper water management, good transportation system and labour.

He said the state government has allocated 40.45 ha of land in Mukah for a sago research and development (R&D) centre for use by the faculty's Centre of Excellence in Sago Research (CoEsar), academics and the industry.

"Recognising that the development of the sago starch industry is important to the state as one of its sources of income, the R&D of this unique and indigenous starch-producing plant needs to be geared in a more sustainable manner, properly managed and well-planned," he said, adding that research products with commercial value and high impact should also be jointly developed by the university and industry.

He also urged stakeholders to study the feasibility of cloning new species endemic to other sago-producing countries, including Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, for possible cultivation in Sarawak.

The state exports around 60,000 to 70,000 tonnes of sago starch worth over US$10 million annually, accounting for over 90 per cent of the country's total exports of the product, he said.

-- BERNAMA

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