Sugarcane Trash as Biomass Resource

cane-trashSugarcane trash (or cane trash) is an excellent biomass resource in sugar-producing countries worldwide. The amount of cane trash produced depends on the plant variety, age of the crop at harvest and soil and weather conditions. Typically it represents about 15% of the total above ground biomass at harvest which is equivalent to about 10-15 tons per hectare of dry matter. During the harvesting operation around 70-80% of the cane trash is left in the field with 20-30% taken to the mill together with the sugarcane stalks as extraneous matter.

Cane trash’s calorific value is similar to that of bagasse but has an advantage of having lower moisture content, and hence dries more quickly. Nowadays only a small quantity of this biomass is used as fuel, mixed with bagasse or by itself, at the sugar mill. The rest is burned in the vicinity of the dry cleaning installation, creating a pollution problem in sugar-producing nations.

Cane trash and bagasse are produced during the harvesting and milling process of sugarcane which normally lasts between 6 to 7 months. Cane trash can potentially be converted into heat and electrical energy. However, most of the trash is burned in the field due to its bulky nature and high cost incurred in collection and transportation.

Cane trash could be used as an off-season fuel for year-round power generation at sugar mills. There is also a high demand for biomass as a boiler fuel during the sugar-milling season. Sugarcane trash can also converted in biomass pellets and used in dedicated biomass power stations or co-fired with coal in power plants and cement kilns.

Burning of cane trash creates pollution in sugar-producing countries

Burning of cane trash creates pollution in sugar-producing countries

Currently, a significant percentage of energy used for boilers in sugarcane processing is provided by imported bunker oil. Overall, the economic, environmental, and social implications of utilizing cane trash in the final crop year as a substitute for bunker oil appears promising. It represents an opportunity for developing biomass energy use in the Sugarcane industry as well as for industries / communities in the vicinity.

Positive socio-economic impacts include the provision of large-scale rural employment and the minimization of oil imports. It can also develop the expertise necessary to create a reliable biomass supply for year-round power generation.

Recovery of Cane Trash

Recovery of cane trash implies a change from traditional harvesting methods; which normally consists of destroying the trash by setting huge areas of sugarcane fields ablaze prior to the harvest.  There are a number of major technical and economic issues that need to be overcome to utilize cane trash as a renewable energy resource. For example, its recovery from the field and transportation to the mill, are major issues.

Alternatives include the current situation where the cane is separated from the trash by the harvester and the two are transported to the mill separately, to the harvesting of the whole crop with separation of the cane and the trash carried out at the mill. Where the trash is collected from the field it maybe baled incurring a range of costs associated with bale handling, transportation and storage. Baling also leaves about 10-20% (1-2 tons per hectare) of the recoverable trash in the field.

A second alternative is for the cane trash to be shredded and collected separately from the cane during the harvesting process. The development of such a harvester-mounted cane trash shredder and collection system has been achieved but the economics of this approach require evaluation. A third alternative is to harvest the sugarcane crop completely which would require an adequate collection, transport and storage system in addition to a mill based cleaning plant to separate the cane from the trash .

A widespread method for cane trash recovery is to cut the cane, chop into pieces and then it is blown in two stages in the harvester to remove the trash. The amount of trash that goes along with the cane is a function of the cleaning efficiency of the harvester. The blowers are adjusted to get adequate cleaning with a bearable cane loss.

On the average 68 % of the trash is blown out of the harvester, and stays on the ground, and 32 % is taken to the mill together with the cane as extraneous matter. The technique used to recover the trash staying on the ground is baling. Several baling machines have been tested with small, large, round and square bales. Cane trash can be considered as a viable fuel supplementary to bagasse to permit year-round power generation in sugar mills.

Thus, recovery of cane trash in developing nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America implies a change from traditional harvesting methods, which normally consists of destroying the trash by setting huge areas of cane fields ablaze prior to the harvest. To recover the trash, a new so-called “green mechanical harvesting” scheme will have to be introduced. By recovering the trash in this manner, the production of local air pollutants, as well as greenhouse gases contributing to adverse climatic change, from the fires are avoided and cane trash could be used as a means of regional sustainable development.

Cane Trash Recovery in Cuba

The sugarcane harvesting system in Cuba is unique among cane-producing countries in two important respects. First, an estimated 70 % of the sugarcane crop is harvested by machine without prior burning, which is far higher than for any other country. The second unique feature of Cuban harvesting practice is the long-standing commercial use of “dry cleaning stations” to remove trash from the cane stalks before the stalks are transported to the crushing mills.

Cuba has over 900 cleaning stations to serve its 156 sugar mills. The cleaning stations are generally not adjacent to the mills, but are connected to mills by a low-cost cane delivery system – a dedicated rail network with more than 7000 km of track. The cleaning stations take in green machine-cut or manually cut cane. Trash is removed from the stalk and blown out into a storage area. The stalks travel along a conveyor to waiting rail cars. The predominant practice today is to incinerate the trash at the cleaning station to reduce the “waste” volume.

Sugarcane Trash – A Wonderful Resource that Indian Sugar Industry is Wasting

In Indian sugar mills, the frequent cycles of ups and downs in the core business of selling sugar has led to the concentration towards the trend of ancillary businesses, like cogeneration power plant and ethanol production, becoming the profit centres. These units, which were introduced as a means to manage sugar mills’ own byproduct, like bagasse, are now keeping several sugar mills financially afloat. Thus, the concept of ‘Integrated Sugar Mill Complex’ has now become a new normal.

Limitations of Bagasse

Bagasse is a ubiquitous primary fuel in cogeneration plants in sugar mills, which adds more than 2,000 MW of renewable power to the Indian energy mix. The inclination of cogeneration plant managers towards bagasse is primarily because of its virtue of being easily available on-site, and no requirement to purchase it from the external market.

This remains true despite its several significant shortcomings as a boiler fuel, prime among which are very high moisture content and low calorific value. As a result, the fuel-to-energy ratio remains abysmally low and the consequent lesser power generation is depriving these sugar mills from achieving true revenue potential from their ancillary power business vertical, which is pegged at ~10,000 MW.

Sugarcane Trash – A Wonder Waste

Though, there is a much neglected high calorific value biomass which is available in proximity of every sugarmill and is also a residue of the sugarcane crop itself, which could enable the cogeneration units to achieve their maximum output potential. This wonder waste is sugarcane trash the dry leaves of sugarcane crop – which is left in the farms itself after sugarcane harvesting as it has no utility as fodder and generally burnt by farmers, which harms the surrounding air quality substantially.

Given its favourable properties of having very low moisture content with moderate-to-high calorific value, it could be used in most of the high pressure boiler designs in a considerable proportion along with bagasse.

cane-trash

Undeniably, sugar mills should not discontinue using bagasse as the primary fuel, but surely complement it with sugarcane trash as it would lead to an increase in their revenue generation and would also allow them to expand operations of their cogeneration plant to off-season, as using sugarcane trash with bagasse in season would leave more bagasse for off season usage.

Hurdles to Overcome

Despite these evident benefits, the major obstacle in development of sugarcane trash as an industrial boiler fuel has been its difficult collection from thousands of small and fragmented farms. Moreover, the trash becomes available and needs to be collected simultaneously during the operating season of the sugar mills, which makes deployment of resources, human or otherwise, for managing the procurement of trash very difficult for any sugar mill.

As a matter of fact, the sugar mills which initiated the pilots, or even scaled commercially, to utilise sugarcane trash along with bagasse, had to sooner or later discontinue its use, owing to the mammoth challenges discussed above.

The Way Forward

Thus, in order to utilise this wonder waste, there is a dire need to outsource its procurement to professional and organised players, like RY Energies and others, which establish the biomass supply chain infrastructure in the vicinity of the cogeneration units to make on-site availability of sugarcane trash as convenient as bagasse and enable them to procure the rich quality biomass at sustainable prices which leads to an increase in their profits.

sugarcane-trash-burning

Burning of cane trash creates pollution in sugar-producing countries

These biomass supply chain companies offer value to the farmers by processing their crop residues in timely manner, thus prevent open burning of the crop residue and contribute to a greener and cleaner environment.

Indeed, owing to its favourable fuel properties, positive environmental impact and now, with ease in its procurement, sugarcane trash biomass is the fuel of today and future for the Indian sugar mills.