By Salman Zafar
Sugarcane is one of the most promising agricultural sources of biomass energy in the world. It is the most appropriate agricultural energy crop in most sugarcane producing countries due to its resistance to cyclonic winds, drought, pests and diseases, and its geographically widespread cultivation. Due to its high energy-to-volume ratio, it is considered one of nature’s most effective storage devices for solar energy and the most economically significant energy crop. The climatic and physiological factors that limit its cultivation to tropical and sub-tropical regions have resulted in its concentration in developing countries, and this, in turn, gives these countries a particular role in the world’s transition to sustainable use of natural resources.
According to the International Sugar Organisation (ISO), Sugarcane is a highly efficient converter of solar energy, and has the highest energy-to-volume ratio among energy crops. Indeed, it gives the highest annual yield of biomass of all species. Roughly, 1 ton of Sugarcane biomass-based on Bagasse, foliage and ethanol output – has an energy content equivalent to one barrel of crude oil. Sugarcane produces mainly two types of biomass, Cane Trash and Bagasse. Cane Trash is the field residue remaining after harvesting the Cane stalk and Bagasse is the milling by-product which remains after extracting sugar from the stalk. The potential energy value of these residues has traditionally been ignored by policy-makers and masses in developing countries. However, with rising fossil fuel prices and dwindling firewood supplies, this material is increasingly viewed as a valuable renewable energy resource.
Sugar mills have been using Bagasse to generate steam and electricity for internal plant requirements while Cane Trash remains under utilised to a great extent. Cane Trash and Bagasse are produced during the harvesting and milling process of Sugarcane which normally lasts 6 to 7 months.
Around the world, a portion of the Cane Trash is collected for sale to feed mills, while freshly cut green tops are sometimes collected for farm animals. In most cases, however, the residues are burned or left in the fields to decompose. Cane Trash, consisting of Sugarcane tops and leaves can potentially be converted into around 1kWh/kg, but is mostly burned in the field due to its bulkiness and its related high cost for collection/transportation.
On the other hand, Bagasse has been traditionally used as a fuel in the Sugar mill itself, to produce steam for the process and electricity for its own use. In general, for every ton of Sugarcane processed in the mill, around 190 kg Bagasse is produced. Low pressure boilers and low efficiency steam turbines are commonly used in developing countries. It would be a good business proposition to upgrade the present cogeneration systems to highly efficient, high pressure systems with higher capacities to ensure utilization of surplus Bagasse.