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October 16th, 2006 at 6:50 am

Brewery Growing ‘Monster Cane’

It is three meters tall and productive even in poor soil, it holds up in droughts and typhoons, and it yields twice as many stems as most sugarcane. No wonder they call it "Monster Cane".

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This new variety of sugarcane, named for its size as much as its vigor, is grown on a test field on the tiny island of Ie in Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa.

When a powerful typhoon swept through the region last month, knocking down trees and houses, the cane was unharmed.

Researchers at major Japanese beer maker Asahi Breweries Ltd. are hoping that someday farmers across Okinawa will be growing Monster Cane not only for sugar but also to fuel cars, raise cattle and fertilize farmland.

Formally known as "high-biomass sugarcane", Monster Cane is Japan’s first variety designed to produce ethanol without sacrificing sugar output. It was jointly developed by Asahi and the National Agricultural Research Center for Kyushu Okinawa Region, an administrative agency.

In a few months, the cane grown on Ie will be harvested to feed a pilot plant run by Asahi Breweries, which aims to test its technology for producing ethanol from cane at a cost of just 30 yen (25 cents) per liter, making it competitive with gasoline.

Asahi aims to put its technology into practical application after completing tests at the pilot plant in 2010.

Researchers also hope the new variety will breathe life into Japanese farming of sugarcane, an important part in crop rotation in Okinawa, by adding value to sugar production.

Researchers at major Japanese beer maker Asahi Breweries Ltd. are hoping that someday farmers across Okinawa will be growing Monster Cane not only for sugar but also to fuel cars, raise cattle and fertilize farmland.

Formally known as "high-biomass sugarcane", Monster Cane is Japan’s first variety designed to produce ethanol without sacrificing sugar output. It was jointly developed by Asahi and the National Agricultural Research Center for Kyushu Okinawa Region, an administrative agency.

In a few months, the cane grown on Ie will be harvested to feed a pilot plant run by Asahi Breweries, which aims to test its technology for producing ethanol from cane at a cost of just 30 yen (25 cents) per liter, making it competitive with gasoline.

Asahi aims to put its technology into practical application after completing tests at the pilot plant in 2010.

Researchers also hope the new variety will breathe life into Japanese farming of sugarcane, an important part in crop rotation in Okinawa, by adding value to sugar production.

Ethanol is carbon-neutral as the CO2 released in the combustion of the fuel is offset by the CO2 captured by plants through photosynthesis. But its use raises the issue of balancing the supply of crops for use in ethanol production with supply of crops for food and feed.

Critics also say ethanol is no solution to global warming if massive inputs of fossil fuels are required to grow the crops and power the facilities used to produce ethanol.

To address these concerns, Asahi has developed a carbon-neutral process of producing ethanol from high-biomass sugarcane.

Asahi says the new cane variety can produce three times as much ethanol as other strains, and slightly more sugar. It also yields more bagasse, or crushed sugarcane refuse, which is burned to generate the energy to run a sugar-ethanol plant.

Asahi estimates the yield of the new sugarcane at 37.4 tonnes per hectare excluding moisture, which can be processed into 7.1 tons of sugar, 4.3 kiloliters of ethanol and 24 tons of bagasse.

This compares with the yield of a conventional cane type at 17.4 tons per hectare, sugar output at 6.9 tons, ethanol production at 1.4 kiloliters and bagasse volume at 7.8 tonnes, which is too small to produce sufficient energy for a processing plant.

The volume of bagasse from high-biomass sugarcane is more than enough to generate energy for the Asahi plant. Surplus bagasse is used as bedding for premium beef cattle on Ie Island, and as fertilizer after being mixed with animal excrement.

Ethanol produced at the Asahi plant is blended with gasoline to fuel cars owned by the Ie village office. Japan allows the production and sale of E3, a fuel that is 3 percent ethanol and 97 percent gasoline.

"It would be great if this project is viable on a larger scale," said Satoru Urasaki at the Ie government office.

An increasing number of Japanese farmers have been abandoning sugarcane production amid intensifying competition from cheap imported sugar and shrinking domestic sugar consumption.

Sugarcane output on Ie Island plunged to a record-low 1,500 tons last year from 52,000 tons in the peak year of 1979. The island’s only sugar mill closed in 2004.

"If an ethanol plant is set up for commercial operations in Okinawa, sugarcane production may recover," said Hirokazu Nagayama, director at a farmers cooperative on the island.

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