Specialized varieties of sugarbeets could become a common crop in central North Dakota in the future.
Maynard Helgaas, president of Green Vision Group, said an increasing number of industries are showing interest in the industrial sugar that could be produced by this new crop.
Helgaas refers to these specialized sugarbeets as energy beets. The varieties are selected for high sugar yields, which differs from the standard sugarbeet where varieties are selected based on the quality of the sugar produced for human consumption. Processing the energy beets results in industrial-grade sugar or juice that can be used to create ethanol or in other industrial applications.
The high sugar content of the energy beets produces about twice the amount of ethanol per acre as corn-based ethanol.
"We keep receiving more calls from companies looking for feedstock for their industries," he said. "Companies that make things like plastics and pharmaceuticals are looking at our products."
Green Vision is currently wrapping up studies on the suitability of energy beets for this region and the best ways to process and store them. Other companies are also studying the product.
"We're working with a couple of companies that will get some of our juice products for their analysis," Helgaas said. "One company is planning to produce demonstration products."
Helgaas would not identify the company or product, citing the preliminary nature of the research process. If the research is successful, it may lead to another manufacturing plant in the region, he said.
"In general, plants are built near the source of the feedstock," he said.
Green Vision Group is also in the process of choosing a location for its own demonstration ethanol plant.
"It could produce industrial sugar or ethanol," Helgaas said. "We plan for it to be somewhere in North Dakota."
The first energy beet processing facility will be located where it can utilize waste steam or heat energy from a coal-fired generating plant. Helgaas said the Spiritwood Energy Park at Spiritwood, N.D., would meet that criteria along with other plants in North Dakota.
"We have a lot of different co-location options," he said. "It drives the cost down and is environmentally friendly."
Research also continues on the suitability of energy beets as a crop. Green Vision Group has 13 test plots at 11 locations around central and western North Dakota. One plot is located near Spiritwood with another at the Carrington Research Extension Center.
"All our locations are out of the Red River Valley," Helgaas said. "We're not competing for land with the food sugar industry. Central North Dakota yields are equal and sometimes better than in the Red River Valley anyway."
Helgaas thinks the future of energy beets may be right around the corner. Green Vision Group is planning on constructing its first ethanol plant in 2014 or 2015 with 10 to 12 plants to follow.
"We continue to move forward with our plans," he said. "We see a lot of positives in the research we are conducting."