Alkol, U of Madrid to develop sugarcane varieties for Spain

By Susanne Retka Schill | March 03, 2014

Alkol Bioenergy and the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid have signed an agreement to develop a Brazilian sugarcane variety for Spain.

The School of Forestry, ETSI, at UPM, will conduct the research. "As professor of the School of Forestry, I wish to express my support for the project for the development of a new hybrid variety of sugarcane,” said José Antonio Manzanera in the announcement. “I consider this center able to provide scientific knowledge and expertise in cross-pollination experiments in the classical method of plant breeding by crossing and selection." Alkol has an agreement with the Brazilian developer of the RB varieties now used on 60 percent of Brazil’s sugarcane acres for adaptation to Spain’s southern growing regions.

“We are pleased to have a leading center as is the UPM ETSI participating in our project,” Alkol CEO Al Costa said. “This project is different in Spain among all renewable energy projects, as it requires no subsidies and that it will bring foreign expertise. Whether we like it or not, biofuels are the only alternative to existing materials and fossil fuels. This variety of sugarcane will be the main source of biomass in the European biofuels policy of 2020, and it takes the advantage that, in Europe, only in Spain, sugarcane can grow."

While sugarcane is associated with the tropics, it has been grown in the south of Spain for more than 200 years, although more than 80 percent of the acres are planted in a now-obsolete variety. Not only is the NC0310 variety from South Africa not resistant to the mosaic virus, the company explained, but very low yields make the crop uncompetitive in today’s sugar and ethanol markets.

The current business model of the Spanish sugarcane industry is also obsolete in that the bagasse has been discarded. Bagasse is now considered a good source for cellulosic ethanol, the company said, which in not competing with food “is the big hope for biofuels in Europe. Alkol’s sugarcane development is targeted for 2020, when new European legislation takes effect, restricting first-generation ethanol made from feedstocks that compete with food to 5 percent of the market.

Available biomass sources are not the most appropriate, the company said, due to their physical characteristics. “That is where this new sugarcane hybrid enters the scene, as it will have more fiber, be more resistant to the lack of water, and will offer yields of up to 200 metric tons per hectare (the currently used biomass options usually do not go over 40 tons per hectare). Moreover, its high fiber content will make it easier to remove the sugars necessary for producing cellulosic ethanol, and all that will mean a lower priced ethanol which does not depend on subsidies or import barriers to compete with Brazil's or USA's cheaper ones.”