The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR, has teamed up with Karnataka-based The Godavari Sugar Mills Ltd (GSML), to set up the country’s first biorefinery to convert crushed sugar cane into industrial raw materials such as cellulose and lignin.
Cellulose and lignin are extensively used in the pharmaceutical, textile and food preservatives industries. The biorefinery at GSML, part of the Somaiya Group, will be equipped to produce ethanol from bagasse, the fibre left over after the juice has been squeezed out of sugar cane, though the technology is still at a preliminary stage.
“We believe that once scaled up to commercial levels, there will be international interest in the cellulose we’re able to manufacture because the costs will be extremely competitive,” said Samir Somaiya, director, GSML. Somaiya said he hopes to scale up production of cellulose and other raw materials at the plant in Sameerwadi, 500km from Bangalore, to about 5.000 tonnes in three-four years. Financial terms of the alliance were not disclosed. The technology for the project was developed by scientists at the National Chemical Laboratory, or NCL, a CSIR lab in Pune, who have improved a range of processes that can break down bagasse into high-grade cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose.
These are used in making a range of products, including paper, cardboard, textiles from cotton and fibre, water soluble adhesives, cement, dyes and so on. “Cellulose of the purity we’ve made costs between Rs30 and Rs40 a kg and the bagasse costs Rs1-2 a kg. So you can see the value addition we’ve been able to make,” said A.J. Varma, deputy director at NCL.
Cellulose prices are extremely variable and depend on their application and processes employed to refine them. “Chemical derivatives of cellulose, such as cellulose acetate, sell for nearly Rs200 a kg,” added Varma. Varma heads the Rs15 crore project at NCL, launched in 2002 under CSIR’s New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative, which funds futuristic high-risk technologies along with the private sector. Due to a decline in sugar prices globally last year and surplus production in India, domestic manufacturers are increasingly looking at deriving as much value as possible from the non-food component of sugar cane. S. Sivaram, director of NCL, said: “Just being able to derive ethanol from a biorefinery will never make it viable. It’s crucial to be able to extract as many value-added products as possible.”