Biofuels Update

November 13, 2009 09:58 AM

Sugar beets have the potential to be the next biofuel source.
Biofuels Develop a Taste for Sugar Beets

The simple sugar beet could be the country's next big biofuel source if research from Iowa State University (ISU) pans out.

Although the research on sugar beets is still in the early stages, the crop is efficient at making sugar, the primary ingredient converted to ethanol, says Vince Lawson, superintendent of ISU's Muscatine Island research farm in Fruitland, Iowa, where some of the field trials are under way. Research is also being conducted on ISU's Southeast Research and Demonstration Farm near Crawfordsville, Iowa.

Research at the Crawfordsville farm has found that on average, 5.5 tons of sugar can be extracted from 35.4 tons of beets. Those 5.5 tons of sugar would make 898 gal. of ethanol. Similarly, the Muscatine Island research farm produced an average of 4 tons
of sugar, which were extracted from 24.7 tons of beets. 

Lawson says the next step is to fine-tune some fertility and production problems that were identified in 2008.

Heartland Renewable Energy and Syngenta provided the funding and support for the research project. Heartland Renewable Energy plans to build an ethanol plant in Muscatine in 2011.

Syngenta provided seed for four types of sugar beet varieties.


More Ethanol Hurts Water

A controversial study out of Purdue University suggests that more of the fertilizers and pesticides used to grow corn would find their way into nearby water sources if ethanol demand leads to more corn acres.

The study of Indiana water sources found that those near fields that practice continuous-corn rotations had higher levels of nitrogen, fungicides and phosphorus than those near fields with corn–soybean rotations. Results of the study by Indrajeet Chaubey, a Purdue associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and Bernard Engel, Purdue professor and head of agricultural and biological engineering, were published in the Journal of Environmental Engineering.

"When you move from corn–soybean rotations to continuous corn, the sediment losses will be much greater,” Chaubey says. "Increased sediment losses allow more fungicide and phosphorus to get into the water because they move with sediment.”

Sediment losses become more prevalent with corn crops because tilling is often required in continuous-corn fields, whereas corn–soybean rotations can more easily be no-till fields, Engel says.

USDA data has shown that corn acreage has increased with the demand for ethanol, with 93 million acres of corn in 2007, an increase of 12.1 million acres that year.

"As we look forward here, if corn stover is going to be a preferred biofeedstock, we would see more corn acreage being planted,” Engel says. "We need to know how that will affect water quality.”

USDA and Purdue funded the study. Chaubey and Engel are expanding their research to Iowa, Tennessee and Arkansas.


Ethanol in the Classroom

From chemists to engineers to accountants, a wide variety of people are required to maintain ethanol and biodiesel facilities.

That's why the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) and the Renewable Fuels Foundation (RFF) are partnering with teachers and the National FFA Organization to provide high school students information about opportunities available in the field of renewable fuels.

"America's energy future rests squarely in its high school classrooms today,” says Mike Jerke, chairman of RFF and general manager of Quad County Corn Processors in Galva, Iowa. "It is these future scientists, engineers and dreamers that will supply both
the manpower as well as the brainpower necessary to break our addiction to fossil fuels.”

The curriculum focuses on the ethanol production process, the benefits of ethanol production and the interplay between renewable fuels and agriculture. Specific information on the curriculum is at

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