Photo Journey: Making The Most Of Sugarcane

Filed by Erika Engelhaupt and Steve Ritter

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EMERALD CITY Across this sugarcane field lies the city of Ribeirão Preto; its name translates to “little black river.” The city of about half a million people lies at the heart of the world’s largest ethanol-producing region and is home to 26 of the 128 ethanol plants in São Paulo state. About 70% of Brazil’s ethanol comes out of São Paulo.

plant-small.jpgToday, we toured the Santa Elisa sugar refinery and ethanol distillery (right). We were welcomed with cups of Brazil’s typically potent coffee, pitchers of green cane juice, and slices of fresh-cut sugarcane to chew on (below). Brazil is the world’s leading producer of both coffee and sugarcane, and after sampling the native treats, we headed to the processing plant to see how sugarcane is turned into ethanol and refined sugar—and generates electricity to boot.

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Sugarcane rolls in from the fields cradled on the backs of a constant stream of trucks (below). This Santa Elisa plant processes 6 million metric tons of sugarcane per year. By comparison, the largest plant in the country handles about four times that amount.

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The cane gets washed after it comes off the trucks. (Residual soil from the washing is returned to the fields.) Next, the cane enters a series of five crushers (below).

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The first two crushers (above, shown from right to left) expel most of the juice. Water is added to the third crusher, and subsequent treatment in the fourth and fifth crushers removes essentially all the sugar from the plants.

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The fiber that’s left behind (called bagasse), shown above flying off the final crusher, is carried by conveyor belts to furnaces, where it is burned to generate electricity. The cane juice from the first pressing moves on to be refined into sugar, and the remaining juice is fermented by yeast into alcohol.

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To make sugar, cane juice is pumped into large tanks (above, top), where it’s filtered and condensed. It’s then crystallized and centrifuged (above, bottom) to remove excess water.

We had the chance to taste-test the refined sugar, still warm from the centrifuge. It tasted like any other sugar, we admit, but it was undoubtedly the freshest we’ve ever sampled.

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The Santa Elisa plant produces 475,000 metric tons of sugar per year. That’s about 475 billion packets of sugar or, on average, 1.3 billion packets per day. The sugar leaves the plant in 1 ton bags.

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To make ethanol, a stream of cane juice from the crushers is diluted to a 20% sugar solution and poured into fermentation vats. During the next 8 hours, yeast ferment the sugars to a 6 to 10% ethanol brew. The yeast is removed and is either recycled to ferment more sugar or dried and sold as animal feed. The ethanol is then distilled in stages (shown below) to >99% purity, denatured, loaded into tanker trucks, and delivered to fuel distributors.

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The Santa Elisa plant produces about 250 million L (about 67 million gal) of ethanol per year. As the region’s production continues to increase, both Petrobras, a state-owned petrochemical company, and a coalition of ethanol producers each plan to build pipelines for delivering ethanol to a coastal port to ship overseas.

 As for the bagasse left over from the crusher, it dries to a fibrous, grass-like fluff that floats throughout the plant. bagassehand-small.jpgPiles of it are sent to a set of furnaces to be burned to produce steam. The steam powers the crushers and generators that make electricity. The Santa Elisa plant generates 58 MW of electricity, of which 19 MW is used to power the plant. The remaining 30 MW is sold to the local power company.

Even with generators running at full capacity, the plant still produces excess bagasse, shown below in a mountain of leftovers. The company sells this material to other ethanol plants that burn it for power.

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And that’s how they make the most of sugarcane here in Brazil, fully using the biomass to make sugar, ethanol, electricity, and a few extra Reais—the Brazilian currency that is worth about 50 cents to the dollar.

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10 Responses to Photo Journey: Making The Most Of Sugarcane

  1. emily says:

    thankyou…you helped me so much with my history homework! this was the only place i could find the facts of the journey from sugarcane to sugar! thankyou! emily

  2. Patrick Nunoo says:

    I AM HIGHLY IMPRESSED BY BRAZIL’S EXAMPLE OF MAKING SUGARCANE USE MORE VIABLE TO THE WORLD. I AM BUSINESS INTERESTED IN SETTING UP SIMILAR REFINERY IN MY COUNTRY. I NEED THE CONTACT INFORMATION OF PETROBRA/THE SANTA ELISA PLANT FOR MORE DISCUSSION ON HOW TO REPLICATE THIS PLANT IN MY COUNTRY.

    THANK YOU.

  3. steve says:

    Here is contact information for the company, address and phone and fax numbers. They have a website, but it is not working very well. You probably can call and make contact with someone.

    Companhia Energetica Santa Elisa S.A.

    Sertaozinho, 14176-500 Brazil
    55 1639463900 , 55 1639463999 fax
    http://www.santaelisa.com.br

  4. ehzakir says:

    hello!
    i wish to show my students the sugar making process with the help of a small proto type sugar making plant tht oprates on 220 volts ac as a model to get a first hand idea as to how sugar is made where can i hve one can anybody help me in this regard
    thanks

  5. […] electricity needed to process cane into ethanol comes from burning the stalks and leaves (bagasse). Some bagasse is used as input for paper […]

  6. […] electricity needed to process cane into ethanol comes from burning the stalks and leaves (bagasse). Some bagasse is used as input for paper […]

  7. polaris kyo says:

    Brazil is thinking. The US needs to consider efforts in this direction. We have so many resources to maintain and supply our own needs right here in this nation. This article is truly empowering and enlightening. Thank you.

  8. Alyssa says:

    Thank you so much! Like Emily said above, this was the only place that I found that gave the details on how sugarcane became table sugar. Thanks so much!!!
    Alyssa

  9. Kelly says:

    I am from Srilanka and would like to know weather there are small plants for making sugar? There are lot of small growers of sugar cane here.
    I am very much thankful to anybody who can give me some advice on small scale refinary or an industry allied to sugar cane
    Thanks
    Kelly Senanayake

  10. Jagtar says:

    Hi I’m from Canada I want to start a sugarcane juice factory in north india . Can u let me know about mechines which can make sugarcane juice and details . If u don’t know plz tell me about something else

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