The European market for sugar production has been very predictable for many years: fixed quota for food production, almost no exports possible but excess production could be sold as raw material to the chemical industry. As from October, all this will change. ‘The production quota will be gone, and we are allowed to produce for the world market’, says Van Noord. This creates a much more dynamic situation. ‘We are already putting the final touches on adaptations to our three factories to prepare for increased production this Fall.’
On top of that, there’s an increasing interest in using sugar or beet pulp as an alternative for raw materials that are traditionally produced by the petrochemical industry. Alcohols or polymers for plastics can all be made from sugar beets. ‘At Suiker Unie, we have been making sugar for over a hundred years. But now, there is a shift towards biorefinery: getting maximum value form the beets.’
Van Noord explains how the agro-food company Suiker Unie is now evolving towards green chemistry. ‘We are for example cooperating with Akzo, exploring the possibilities to provide them with raw materials from sugar beets instead of oil.’
Fermentation is an important first step. ‘We chop the beets in small pieces, extract the sugar and then we process the remaining beet pulp.’ Many useful products can be extracted from the pulp. ‘The technical issues are not that complicated. The really difficult part is to develop the market for these products. And that takes a lot of time and effort!’
Another problem is that low oil prices, as we have experienced over the last few years, reduce the demand for more expensive green alternatives – which slows down the development of these sugar beet based products. Suiker Unie is therefore taking a stepwise approach. The first step is already made: ‘We have fitted our plants with a digester followed by a production process that turns beet pulp into biogas.’ This way, there is a ‘value stream’ for the pulp.
Once this chain is up and running, it is time to extract the most promising compound from the pulp. ‘We can develop a market for this first product, but all the while the gas production means we are making money from the pulp.’ When the first product is a success, a second compound can be developed and so forth, until finally a true bio refinery plant is created.
During this process, new knowledge is needed to create maximum value from the beets. That’s where the CCC is a very valuable partner, says Van Noord. ‘Collaboration with academics helps us to look at carbohydrates in new ways. We really need this to keep ahead in the new, much more dynamic sugar beet market.’