From Beets to Biofuel

October 25, 2009 07:00 PM

Jeanne Bernick, Farm Journal Crops & Issues Editor
Photo courtesy of Syngenta.
The simple sugar beet could be the next big biofuel source if Iowa State University research pans out. Two University research farms are growing sugar beets to determine their biofuel potential and to examine soil erosion, degrading of soil organic matter and requirements for energy-intensive fertilizers. 
Although the research on sugar beets is 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 underway. Research is also being conducted on ISU's Southeast Research and Demonstration Farm near Crawfordsville, Iowa.
"Our work is important because it will provide estimates of potential sugar beet yield so work can begin on developing realistic energy budgets and profitability of using sugar beets as a biofuel,” Lawson says. 
The trial began in April 2008, where a half-acre was planted at each farm. The Southeast research farm project found that on average, 5.5 tons of sugar could be extracted from 35.4 tons of beets. Those 5.5 tons of sugar would end up making 898 gallons 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 crop is showing potential and the next step is to continue planting more sugar beets and fine-tune some fertility and production problems that were identified in 2008.
Heartland Renewable Energy and Syngenta provided the funding and support of 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. 

You can email Jeanne Bernick at

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