When sugar cane is ground up, a wet, fluffy, fibrous byproduct called bagasse is produced. Sugar mills burn it to create their own energy. But there’s always a lot left over, and much of it ends up in massive piles around the mills or packed down into pits.
Now, as Business Report details in a feature from the current issue, one company is building a plant that it says will convert 600,000 metric tons of sugar cane waste annually into 200,000 tons of biofuel pellets that can be burned in coal-fired plants without expensive retrofitting.
The project is just the first of what state officials say could be 10 or more such facilities throughout south Louisiana, requiring a total of $312 million in capital investment and employing 450 people by 2019.
American BioCarbon, formerly known as NFR BioEnergy, is partnering with the Cora Texas Manufacturing sugar mill in White Castle to build the first plant. Philip Keating is CEO of American BioCarbon. He’s also a managing director with Loeb Partners in New York City, an investment banking, wealth management and private equity firm that is the primary owner of the project.
The waste will be heated, dried and cooked to produce “bio-coal.” While natural gas might be used to get things started, Keating says, a gas produced during the process can be recycled to power the system.
“It’s self-sufficient, so it’s very green,” he says.
And unlike coal, bio-coal doesn’t produce toxic emissions. While it’s generally more expensive than coal, it also has a higher energy content than some types of coal, producing up to 10,000 BTUs per pound, Keating says.
The primary markets for biomass fuel sources are in Europe, where bagasse products and wood pellets are in demand to meet government mandates to “green up” coal-fired power plants, says David Dismukes, who directs LSU’s Center for Energy Studies. Drax Biomass, part of a company that owns the largest power station in the United Kingdom, is producing wood pellets in Louisiana and Mississippi for that very reason.
“I don’t see a big role in the near term for a whole lot of biomass” in Louisiana’s energy production, Dismukes says, except in “unique, niche applications where all the pieces happen to come together.”
Historically, bagasse has been converted into various products, such as high-quality particle boards and paper. Ceiling tiles made from bagasse were used in the construction of the Louisiana State Capitol’s House and Senate chambers, says Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League in Thibodaux.
But maintaining an economically viable market for bagasse has proven difficult.
“We keep swinging at the ball here, hoping we’re going to hit on one that makes a difference for us, because we really want to find a use for it,” Simon says.