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Planned project to produce ethanol, chemicals from beets on hold

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Industrial grade sugar beets, which can be used to produce ethanol and plastic, may become a farm crop for central North Dakota in the future, although the time is not right now, according to Maynard Helgaas, president of Green Vision Group.

Green Vision Group has been in the planning process for plants to process industrial sugar beets for fuel and commercial chemicals in a number of North Dakota locations.

"We've let the communities know we're on hold," Helgaas said. "The costs (of the sugars) are not where we need them to be."

Helgaas said the cost of storing sugar beets or the juice of the crop is the problem. The storage is necessary for a processing plant to run year-round rather than just in the fall and winter after harvest.

Those problems are being researched but no results are anticipated for at least another year.

Ethanol processing involves converting the feedstock, in this case sugar beets, into a sugar. The sugar is then fermented into alcohol, which is distilled for purity. The same process is done in processing corn ethanol where the corn is converted to sugar before fermenting and distilling.

"The cost for sugar from corn is about 6 cents per pound," Helgaas said. "The cost of the beet sugar is higher."

Helgaas said if storage costs can be reduced, the industrial sugar beet could make an excellent crop for the area and a good source of ethanol and industrial chemicals.

"It still produces twice as much ethanol per acre than corn," he said. "That is a big plus."

The industrial sugars can be processed into ethanol or into other products, including plastics. Helgaas said one promising use is for water and soft-drink bottles that are biodegradable.

"We're not going to look at just ethanol as an end product," he said. "Plastics and other products, and there are a lot of them."

Other research is being done on increasing the productivity of the industrial beet varieties available to farmers. Helgaas anticipates seeing "significant" increases to possible yields in the next three to five years.

Connie Ova, CEO of the Jamestown/Stutsman Development Corp., said if the project moves ahead, the Spiritwood Energy Park Association's industrial park at Spiritwood would be one possible location.

"We've got room for them and it would be a good fit," she said.

Ova said a lot of research has already gone into the project.

"They've put in quite an effort," she said. "It would be very interesting to see them move forward at sometime."

Helgaas also believes the project will ultimately be built.

"It is still very promising but it is a timing thing," he said. "With oil at $40 per barrel or less it makes it more competitive in the ethanol industry."