Phil Keating has long worked in the energy industry, with experience in clean, or sustainable, sources as well as older fossil fuels.
His work often took him to Louisiana. There, he saw a perplexing sight – towering piles of bagasse outside the state’s sugar mills. Bagasse is the fibrous material that’s left over after the sugar juice is squeezed out of sugarcane stalks.
The lightbulb went off in his head.
“It was an opportunity,” he says. “I saw a big, huge pile of biomass, which was a problem for the industry and the environment.”
The sugarcane industry has long used bagasse as fuel for its factories. Mills in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas burn bagasse onsite in boilers to produce bioelectricity that powers company operations. And many companies place excess power from this process onto the electrical grid to help light local communities.
But even with these electric operations in full swing, there’s lots and lots of leftover bagasse piled outside the mills every season.
Keating’s idea was simple: Turn those piles of biomass into an energy source that didn’t have to be used onsite but could be shipped to anyone in the world.
Today, he’s at the helm of American BioCarbon. The company has a small plant at the Cora-Texas cane mill and is planning on building a bigger plant in the next 18 months to supply fuel made form sugarcane waste to the world.
Keating and others in the industry are transforming piles of unwieldy bagasse into compressed, portable pellets similar to charcoal briquettes.
Europe is a likely first market, where greenhouse gas reduction regulations are forcing energy companies to look for new and renewable sources.
Wood pellets are a product European companies have used in the past, but bagasse pellets are far superior, Keating says. Wood pellets, according to European standards, provide a minimum of 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases but the standard will soon increase to 70 percent, knocking that energy source out of the market.
Bagasse pellets have a reduction rate of more than 150 percent, he says, because the product doesn’t require the input energy that wood does.
“We are just stepping into an existing process,” he says. “We are not harvesting. We are taking a waste stream and making energy. It’s what sustainability is all about.”
About 20 people work for American BioCarbon now but the workforce will increase to around
150 after the new plant comes on line.
The company works closely with the sugarcane industry to meet its needs. The facility it runs at Cora-Texas is called a “de-trasher,” which means it strips the waste from the cane before the material enters the mill allowing the mill to be more efficient.
It’s one more way the sugar industry is partnering to support sustainability.
“It’s good for the environment, good for energy customers, and good for the cane industry,” Keating says. “The growing market we see in Europe and communities across the U.S. means this will be a sustainable partnership for years to come.”