Sugar plant to make ethanol from cane residue

CLEWISTON, Fla. -- Egrets, herons and other birds circle as a sugar harvester rolls slowly through a cane field, slicing the stalks at the base, loading them into transport trucks, and then blowing the thrash back on the ground.

The harvested cane will be milled into raw sugar in a mere seven hours. But someday there may also be value in what is left in the fields.

Judy Sanchez, spokeswoman for Clewiston-based United States Sugar Corp., pointed to the piles of leaves and other plant material blanketing the cane field. ''All that can be used as biomass,'' she said as she watched the birds swoop in to feast on insects churned up in the harvest.

Alternative energy production is a promising new business and one of the compelling reasons for keeping the Clewiston mill and refinery operating under U.S. Sugar's control as it will be under the revised deal announced last week between the company and the South Florida Water Management District. The company has agreed to sell 181,000 acres of its land to the state for Everglades conservation but will retain its mill and sugar refining.

Rather than distilling sugar cane into ethanol, U.S. Sugar is interested in using the estimated one million tons of plant waste generated in sugar production -- the biomass -- to make lower-cost ethanol.

U.S. Sugar and Warrenville, Illinois-based Coskata announced Monday that they had agreed to explore construction of a cellulosic ethanol facility in Clewiston. The plant would use sugar biomass to produce ethanol.

The proposed facility is expected to produce 100 million gallons of ethanol per year, and would be the world's largest second-generation ethanol facility.

''We see this technology as a perfect complement to our existing sugar mill, not to mention a win for the environment, the farming community and for our employees,'' said Robert Coker, senior vice president of public affairs, in a statement.

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