Research scientists at Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory are testing sugar beets as a new source of ethanol.
Igathi Cannayen presented his research this week at the lab’s annual research conference held at the Seven Seas Hotel in Mandan.
Cannayen, who splits his time between the lab and North Dakota State University, has been working with industry group BeetsAll Biofuel on an economic feasibility study, energy beet yield trials, and juice storage research since 2009.
From the studies the group has found the beets produce a higher yield, higher income and can be grown in non-traditional areas.
Cannayen said the specialized sugar beets called energy beets are grown strictly for energy use and not food. The beets produce double the ethanol per acre of corn.
The net return per acre is twice that of corn and soybeans on non-irrigated land and three times those crops on irrigated land.
The group has planted 14 test plots, five irrigated and nine dryland, across the state, including locations in Turtle Lake, Williston, Minot and Jamestown. From the test plots, Cannayen said, he expects an average income of $13.9 million after expenses.
Maynard Helgaas of BeetsAll Biofuel said the group has plans for 16 energy beet processing plants across the state, with construction on the first 20-million-gallon plant targeted for 2015.
About 30,000 acres of energy beets will be needed to support each processing facility.
North Dakota Agriculture Comissioner Doug Goehring said the group is going to have to prove the viability to farmers, though.
Growing beets is labor intensive, especially during harvest, costs a lot and requires special storage.
“Beet seed is not necessarily cheap and beet equipment is not necessarily cheap,” Goehring said.
Goehring also said the sandy soil and rocks in central North Dakota make growing beets difficult.
Goehring said there is still quite a bit of reluctance among farmers he’s talked to, but if there’s enough economic value in energy beets, producers will consider them.
“They want a pretty good plan put in place,” he said.
Helgaas said BeetsAll Biofuel is working with two or three interested technology companies that are looking for sugars to make chemicals. He said a processing facility of this type is estimated to cost between $60 million and $75 million.
Ethanol from the beets is certified as an advanced biofuel by the Environmental Protection Agency, making them sell for a premium price. The test plots also establish federal crop insurance for growers and the group is trying to get a multi-peril crop insurance program.