German Sugar Industry Eyes Ethanol

During the week of October 14th, a group of 19 representatives from Germany, many of which were sugar producers, toured three ethanol facilities in Kansas and Nebraska.
By Mike Bryan | October 01, 2002
Plagued by many of the same issues that haunt the U.S. sugar industry, such as shrinking markets, low world sugar prices and increased competition from corn sweeteners, the German beet sugar industry is eying ethanol. In mid-October, a group of 19 representatives from Germany, many of which were sugar producers, toured three ethanol facilities in Kansas and Nebraska.

BBI International organized the whirlwind bus tour of the U.S. Energy Partners in Russell, Kan., Chief Ethanol in Hastings, Neb., and High Plains Ethanol in York, Neb. Gunter Brodl of Vogelbusch U.S.A. hosted a dinner for the group in Hastings. The tour ended with a visit to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., to discuss the progress of the cellulose-to-ethanol technology.

Currently there is no ethanol production in Germany, but the government is strongly encouraging the development of domestic ethanol production. "Sugar and sugar co- products are a natural feedstock for ethanol production," said Klaus Dunker of NORDZUCKER, a major beet sugar producer in Germany. Molasses, the residue sugars in the beet pulp after processing and perhaps even the sugar itself, all are potential feedstocks for ethanol production.

Currently, the beet pulp is dried and sold as livestock feed. Molasses is sometimes further refined and sold as a consumer product or mixed with the beet pulp as a feed ingredient, depending on demand. The equipment required to extract the residual sugars left in the beet pulp are simply too expensive to pass a cost/benefit test. Extracting those sugars in an ethanol facility may be significantly more cost effective and still leave the value of the beet pulp as a co-product in tact.

In a worst-case scenario, beet sugar producers could actually use sugar itself as a feedstock, providing the economics could justify such a departure from traditional uses. The attention that Germany is giving to ethanol production from sugar and sugar coproducts is not substantially different than their counterparts in the United States. There has hardly been a beet sugar producer in America that has not taken at least a cursory look at ethanol. Some have even gone to the point of a full feasibility evaluation.

Long-term, the opportunities perhaps rest in the conversion of the cellulose in the beet pulp to ethanol. But while that technology is being developed, there are serious plans underway to make the transition now and incorporate cellulose technology when the time is right. In addition, the price differential of gasoline between Europe and the United States, may make the economics of such a venture much more appealing.

Dietrich Klein a private consultant from Germany who sponsored the tour said, "For now we are just looking and evaluating options, but ethanol production is something that is quite high on our agenda, and the German sugar industry can, and likely will, play a major role in our future energy needs."