Sugar, Oh Honey Honey. You Are My Candy Girl…Or Should I Say Energy Girl?

Although The Archies were definitely talking about sweet treats, Gina Castell talks to Miriam Röder about hub research using the sweet stuff for its own purposes.

Sugarcane, a common plant in South Africa. It’s known as a cash crop, because people earn cash with it (if you hadn’t already guessed). Sugarcane is mainly used to make sugar, but also bioenergy. When people talk about sugarcane bioenergy, people think of the biofuels that are used to run cars, like bioethanol. However, discussions have raged over issues of food fuel, from how the land is used to whether the land should even be used for fuel over food.
But we’ve missed something here. A sharp, pointy something. People seem to have overlooked what’s left once the sugar is gone. The remains.
When all the sugar has been collected from the sugarcane, farmers burn the sugarcane fields to get rid of the residue. The residue is made up of long, spikey leaves. The great thing is we can actually use these leftover leaves, instead of just burning and creating pollution.
(Burning sugarcane field)
Most sugarcane in the world comes from Brazil. Brazil has been making bioethanol for decades, so bioenergy from sugarcane is not new. Brazil even has cars that run on 100% bioethanol, not a drop of fossil fuels! Countries like the US have been buying bioethanol for a long time. The residue on the other hand is new territory. When people talk about using sugarcane as bioenergy, they talk about the cane, not so much the leaf.
The idea is to grow sugarcane as normal, for sugar in South Africa, but to just start thinking about bioenergy as an add on to this. So tweaking what currently goes on to include the sugarcane leaf. This is what ‘bioenergy integration pathways’ is.
This is a science project, but very much a social one too. It will open new opportunities for sugarcane growers in South Africa. Most growers are poor and only grow sugarcane for sugar. But using the leaf to produce energy in the future could see their incomes rise. Handing the leaf to bioenergy operators or even owning their own bioenergy equipment, bringing energy to the local community, could bring in more money. The extra energy, which they didn’t have before, could also be sold on.
At the moment, the plan is to spread ideas about what can potentially be done. Just getting people on board and getting them to start thinking about other options is a milestone. It’s all about trying to overcome unsustainable processes in sugar production, but also empowering grower communities and improving their energy access.
The project faces many obstacles. When speaking to locals, the biggest challenge they face is irrigation (pumps watering plants) as the pumps are poorly maintained. Climate change doesn’t help, as droughts and heavy rainfall cause further damage to the pumps. Crime means pumps get stolen and people feel unsafe irrigating at night. So there are social obstacles to overcome in South Africa, not just technology and economics.
How this project evolves really depends on the future of the sugar market. The price of sugar continues to fall lower and lower, which makes growing sugar harder. It might be that our diets change, or that sugar mills no longer see the point in producing sugar, or maybe something completely new is done with sugar residue as making materials from bio-based stuff becomes more and more popular. Who knows? It’s hard to say. We’re pretty sure sugarcane doesn’t end with sugar though.
To the question of spreading research worldwide, Mirjam explains that you can try, but different communities work differently. For instance, there was the plan to bring Brazilian technology to Mozambique, Africa, but it failed because of political and social problems. The project knows that you need to be very sensitive, especially with poor communities, with how you introduce bioenergy.
There are many roads to take with sugarcane, to do something else aside from sugar, so lets branch out. If one thing’s for certain, its that sugarcane leaf is not waste and can be used for bioenergy.
After all, one mans trash is another mans treasure.
Words by Gina Castellheim

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