From sweet on the table to fuel in the tank: the millenary history of Sugar Cane

Sugar Cane is back in the news. With oil prices resembling those of the early 1980s, it seems that all those efforts made by then in Brasil to step-up ethanol production make sense again. With the promise of a high energy return and a renewable production cycle, the cane culture might be set for a return.

It won’t take long to start hearing about sugar cane successfully planted and converted to ethanol closer to home than expected. But before the cane hype gets installed, please take a dive into the fascinating history of a plant that shaped the World.

This article has a Companion that adds geographic information to the text. A Google Earth file can be found here for download; when a mark like [Pxx] appears in the text double click in the corresponding placemark to get a view of the geographic location in focus.

What is it?

A Cuban cane cutter sharpenning his blade. Click for more.

It is a plant from the gramineae family remarkable in harvesting the energy from the sun. It grows with a stout and fibrous stalk formed by several joints that’s highly rich in sucrose. It produces small flowers forming pending spikes at the top. Depending on the breed it can grow from 3 to 6 meters high, with a stalk 2 to 5 centimeters thick.

Although mechanized harvest has been evolving, sugar cane is still mostly cut by hand throughout the world. The tool used by cutters is a steel blade 50 centimeters long widening to 15 centimeters at its tip. Yielding is made by cutting down the cane, clearing the leaves (sometimes with the help of a hook at the blade’s end) and giving a final cut on its top at the level of the last mature joint. The stalks are then pilled and collected in beams by hand or mechanically. The beams are then carried to a mill where they are triturated into a broth that is the base of the final products.

Brasil is by far the largest sugar cane producer in the world, although the culture is almost universal in Tropical regions, were it benefits from the alternating humid and dry seasons. Although sugar is its most popular product, the cane juice is also used to produce syrup, molasses, rum, firewater (called cachaça in Brasil) and alcohol used as fuel. Among the residues of the sugar cane crushing is the bagasse than can be used as a heat source, powering the mills or producing electricity. A mix of cane yeast and bagasse is also used as feed stock, and another residue, in Brasil called cane wine, can be used as fertilizer.

In the southeast of Brasil sugar cane is planted from October to March and harvested from May to October; in the north it is planted from July to November and harvested from December to May. Circa 80% of Brasil’s harvest is done by hand, employing more than 1 million workers. Varying with local environment conditions the annual harvest can go from 50 to 100 tones per hectare, the mean for Brasil is 60 tones per hectare. From this mass the sugar content extracted can go from 9% to 12%, whereas the volume of ethanol obtained stays around 70 liters per tone.

Origins and first migrations

Darius I of Persia. Click for more.

Although still a matter open to discussion, sugar cane is commonly referenced as originary from Papua New Guinea, appearing between 10000 and 12000 years ago. Other possible origin is Western Polynesia, but due to the proximity of these territories and a high number of hybrid species, it is impossible to know exactly where sugar cane first germinated [P01].

By 3000 B.C. the plant had slowly traveled north through tropical Asia to the Malaysian Peninsula, Indochina and the Bay of Bengal. At this time the plant’s products weren’t yet subject to trade, its production was mainly as a subsistence culture [P02].

Sugar cane was first introduced into China circa 800 B.C., at the time still used as syrup [P03]. It is only by 400 B.C. that the first raw sugar is made by crystallizing the syrup. At this point the culture is widespread throughout East Asia, clearly testing the tropical limits.

By 500 B.C. emperor Darius I of Persia sends several expeditions to the East (among them one exploring the Indus River) cementing the economic fabric of his empire. It is believed that in consequence of these expeditions sugar cane is eventually brought back to Persia. There it would be cherished as a high luxury item and kept secret from the rest of the western world. By this time the culture as clearly left the Tropics behind [P04].

The Arab Conquest

The word from which the name sugar originated is, probably, "grain", "sarkar", in Sanskrit.

In the eastern part of India, sugar was called "shekar", while the Arab people knew it as "al zucar", which was transformed into the Spanish "azucar", and from there, to "açúcar", in Portuguese.

In France, sugar is called "sucre" and, in Germany, "zucker", and from there into English "sugar".

Prophet Muhammad preaching in Mecca. Click for more.

By 610 Prophet Muhammad received his first revelation from God, originating a new monotheistic religion. Under this new faith Prophet Muhammad united most of the Arabic Peninsula, especially after the conquest of his home city, Mecca. From there the Arabs would swiftly gain control of the Middle East and its surroundings, consolidating and spreading the Muslim faith.

During the first half of the VII century, the Umayyad Caliphate (an almost informal political setting that aroused from Prophet Muhammad’s conquests) spread to Syria in the north, Egypt in the east and Persia in the west. In Persia the Arabs found the sugar cane, and understanding its potential, not only brought its culture to the west but also created the first large scale sugar trade [P05].

In 640 the culture had already reached the Mediterranean environment; it would then enter North Africa were the superior Egyptian chemistry would propel its fast spreading [P06]. The trade brings sugar to Europe for the Caliphate profit; sugar cane becomes itself a fuel of the Caliphate expansion.

In 711 the Arab lords conquered Gibraltar, finally entering Europe, bringing with them, among other novelties and innovations, the sugar cane culture. The first plantations in the continent were in what is now the Algarve and Andalucía circa 750, from there expanding to other parts of Europe [P07].

Rise of the Umayyad Caliphate. Click for more.

In Europe the plant showed again its appetence for the humid islander environment. Especially in Sicily, were it arrived in 950, and in Crete, sugar cane was a successful culture [P08]. By the XIV century the plant had spread entirely through out the European Mediterranean, now testing the forties. But production was insufficient and sugar was still imported from the East, especially India. Venice hold the refining monopoly, and the trade routs from India were mostly controlled by the successors of the Caliphate.

At the same time the Crusades are coming to an unsuccessful end, with the Ottoman Empire rising and moving west. Sugar can cost the equivalent of today’s 100$ per kilogram in Europe; the scene is set for the next step in expansion.

Atlantic Expansion

The Caravel, the ship that made the Atlantic discovery in the XV century. Click for more.

At beginning of the XV century Christian Europe is importing commodities (sugar, pepper, cinnamon, etc) from the Far East trough land routes controlled by the Muslim lords; prices are very high, performing a significant wealth transfer from Europe to the Middle East and North Africa. At the westernmost tip of the continent, Portugal is one of the most helpless states, and is the first to try to change the situation.

The strategy is set towards the sea, with the prospect of finding a maritime route to India, overriding the land routes controlled by the Arab lords. At this time the Atlantic was almost completely unknown to the Europeans, apart from the African coast down to the Bojador cape, for high sea faring was outside their knowledge. In this setting Prince Henry assembles a research center in Algarve, drawing together mathematicians, cartographers, engineers, etc, that would create the technology needed to face the open Atlantic.

The Atlantic exploration happens relatively fast; based on maritime trade, the further it goes the larger the profits it generates, sponsoring further exploration. The maritime route to India was finally established in 1498; at the time there wasn’t much left to explore in the Atlantic.

As a way to make the newfound inhabited land profitable, Prince Henry sent for sugar cane specialists from Sicily to start its culture in Madeira in 1425 [P09]. At this time the maritime expansion was mainly sponsored by precious metals brought from Africa’s coasts, but during the later part of the XV century sugar cane started to have a leading role. Under King John II’s reign the plant would be brought to all inhabited archipelagos found by the Portuguese: Canary Islands in 1480 (later offered to the Spanish Crown), Cape Verde in 1490 and from there to São Tomé [P10]. In 1493 Columbus brought the first sugar seedlings to the Caribbean, planted in the island of Hispaniola [P11], but trade from the West Indies would only begin some decades later. In less than a century sugar cane was back to the Equator.

The Sugar Boom

Trade from the New World would start only in the XIV century with the building of the first sugar mill in Hispaniola in 1516. The culture would then start to spread throughout the Caribbean, by the 1530s it had been introduced to Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Peru.

But the big industry explosion would happen in Brasil. Following a Crown decree promoting the expansion of sugar trade, an expedition led by Martim Afonso de Sousa builds the first sugar mill in Brasil, near what is now São Paulo [P12]. The culture would head north from there, towards warmer climate arriving at Pernambuco - sugar land.

Circa 1550 a German traveler by the name of Hans Staden embarked on an expedition to the River Plate. After some nautical incidents the explorers found themselves stuck at São Marco, from where Staden is captured by a party of Tupinamba Indians. In spite of several efforts from the Portuguese to negotiate his release, Staden is kept captive for more than two years before managing to escape. He returns to Germany on a French ship and writes a book on his experience (“Among the Wild Tribes of Eastern Brasil”). This book is a remarkable document of life in the New World at the epoch; in it Staden reports that by 1540, from Pernambuco to Surinam there were already 2000 sugar mills operating, and 800 more in the island of Santa Catarina. [P13].

Harvesting sugar cane in Brasil by Julius Moessel. Click for more.

Such number of mills included thousands of iron cast machinery components: gears, levers, axles, etc. Demand for such parts fueled an explosion in mold making and iron casting in Europe, with many craftsmen and blacksmiths specializing in this type of machinery. The sugar cane trade was the great rehearsal for the Industrial Revolution.

The Dutch expansion

In 1580 Portugal broke under the weight of Inquisition, which disbanded the human capital that made the expansion possible. With a teenage king missing in action in Africa, the closer successor left was King Philip of Spain. Both countries merged under King Philip’s rule creating an immense empire. At the time Spain was at war with the Dutch; it was in Holland and Flanders that most refineries existed and it was here that most of the sugar from Brasil was refined.

The Dutch assuming control of most of the production in the Northeast coast of Brasil, up to the mid of the XVII century when Portugal and Spain parted ways. They also expanded the sugar cane culture in the Caribbean, starting in Barbados and going all the way north trough the smaller isles up to the Virgin Islands[P14]. The Dutch expansion was possible for in their turn they proceeded with the technological progress. They developed new larger ships more suitable for the trade and adopted the Mercator cartographic projection, which produced charts where for the first time a maritime route with constant compass would be a straight line.

A Dutch ship from circa 1600. Click for more.

In parallel with the Dutch the Spanish also stepped up production in the Caribbean, especially in its bigger island, Cuba. In order to reduce their dependence on imported sugar, the French and the British would also set in for their share, first through piracy then by also settling. The British would strive in Jamaica, the French in Saint-Domingue. These were the wild days in the Caribbean.

The Mercator projection. Click for more.

The Sugar Triangle

[...] people all coloured of the same night, working vividly, and moaning all at the same time without moment of truce, nor rest; he who sees the machine and the confuse and strident apparatus of that Babylon, can not doubt, even having seen Etnas and Vesuviuses, that such is a resemblance of Hell.

Father António Vieira, 1633.

African slaves harvesting sugar cane. Click for more.

Sugar cane cutting was (and still is) a highly demanding hand labour task. The European settlers couldn’t possibly provide the numbers needed for that, they had to recur to slavery. At first they tried to enslave the indigenous folk, which were still close to the Stone Age, but such would rapidly fall short of their needs. In the beginning the Indians vastly outnumbered the settlers, which would be happy with a peaceful co-existence, avoiding conflicts. Later, the alien diseases brought from Europe by the settlers would decimate the indigenous populations.

The Europeans resorted to slaves brought from Africa. Strong built folk, resistant both to the diseases brought from Europe and local ones like malaria; they were sacrificed to make the sugar boom possible in the West Indies.

The final pillar of the Sugar Industry was completed, creating what would become known as the Sugar Triangle. This name refers to the route that traders would make to bring sugar to Europe. Ships would sail out from the old continent bound to the African shores. There they would buy all the slaves they could fit in the under deck without choking. Slaves stacked they would sail towards Brasil or the Caribbean in a swift voyage. At sugar land they’d unload the slaves that had survived the trip, and would load up with raw sugar. The next step would be the return to Europe; once there the sugar would be unloaded for the final refinement and the ship would be refitted for another triangular commission [P15].

Slaves below deck. Click for more.

The Sugar Triangle was the stage of the largest migration phenomenon at the global scale. Millions of Africans were thus forced to abandon their homeland just to die in a gruesome voyage to the New World or live for the rest of their lives as cane cutters. In the XIX century, after the decline of the sugar cane industry (see below) the Sugar Triangle would be replaced by the Cotton Triangle that would prolong the migration up the slavery abolishment.

Facing the limits

Someone has already quite rightly said that the sugar cane culture is processed in an autophagic regime: the cane devours everything around it, engulfing more and more land, dissolving the topsoil, annihilating the smaller helpless cultures and the human capital itself, from which the culture drains all life. Such is the pure truth…

Josué de Castro, Geografia da Fome, Rio de Janeiro, 1952.

Deforestation. Click for more.

There was a problem with sugar cane, it was a very demanding culture, and to make it worse the milling process was very energy intensive. The regime is simple: to start with the forest is chopped down or burnt to make way for the cane, and then the wood is burned in the mills to crystallize the cane juice into sugar. By the XVIII century in Brasil every kilogram of sugar required 15 kilograms of wood.

The cane prefers the warmer and humid climates; this is why most of the text so far has been focusing on islands. It is in the islands that the destructive power of the cane is felt more rapidly. Madeira (the Portuguese word for wood) was deforested in a century, also in the Canary Islands resource limits were faced still in the XVI century. Apart from Cuba all the Caribbean islands would face severe resource constraints in the XVII century; by 1700 sugar had become once more a highly expensive commodity.

In the main land the extensive Atlantic forest would disguise these limits. This is why the cane would endure in Brasil were both the climate and the wood supply were favourable. Still, in 1990 the Brasilian Atlantic forest was 8% of what the Portuguese explorers found at the end of the XV century.

The Brasilian Atlantic forest; in yellow the original area, in green the ramaining. Click for more.

Back to the Caribbean

Steam powered Sugar Mill. Click for more.

This constrained environment provided for some important developments. The milling is a process where the cane juice is boiled into progressively heavier molecules, typically in three or four furnaces. In 1650 it was invented in Jamaica the Jamaican Train, a process that would allow the several furnaces to be heated with a single fire [P16]. The wood requirements drop sharply, and this new process starts to spread through out the Caribbean.

By the middle of the XVIII century with high competition between the colonial powers and the spread of the refineries in Europe, the price of sugar drops until it becomes a basic food commodity. With the industry in decline in Brasil (where gold had become a major source of wealth) the Caribbean emerges as the largest producer in the world; Guadaloupe, Barbados, Saint-Domingue, Jamaica, had turn their economies almost entirely to the cane culture. In this century Britain succeeds the Dutch as the major maritime power, and is successful in eradicating piracy from the Caribbean.

In 1751 sugar cane is introduced in Louisiana. The final stage of developments on the milling process unfolds relieving further the burden on the forest. The cane bagasse is used as a fuel, partially substituting lumber, animal manure is used to fertilize the soil, and in the second half of the XVIII century the steam powered mills starts to propagate. It is in Louisiana that an important invention takes place, the vacuum boiler, created by Norbert Rillieux in the 1820s [P17]. The milling process becomes much more efficient, evolving towards full steam-powered mechanization, reducing the hand labour intensity.

Norbert Rillieux's vacuum system. Click for more.


Beet, a modern source of sugar. Click for more.

By the turn of the XIX century the Napoleonic wars had already grown into a major conflict, stalemate unfolded with Britain maintaining naval supremacy and Napoleon controlling most of continental Europe. The raw sugar can not reach the refineries in the continent, and in 1813 Napoleon simply bans sugar imports [P18].

It is this setting that the work of German researchers Andreas Marggraf and Franz Archard, who found sucrose in beet roots and built a sugar beet mill in previous decades, is put to service. Fueled by the industrial revolution the sugar beet industry develops rapidly creating a serious competitor to the cane industry; raw sugar doesn’t have to travel from the New World to the refineries and the hand labour cost is lower.

The abolishment of slavery that put an end to the endless flow of man power, and the discovery of saccharin, an artificial sweetener, were in their turn two important elements in the decline of cane culture. At the start of the XX century most territories in the Caribbean had become independent from the colonial powers, a fact not disconnected with the decline of the sugar trade.


Throughout the XX century many of the countries where sugar was traded in the colonial times kept producing, taking advantage of low wages, but sugar was by no means the main economic activity it was in the past. Since being in a favourable environment the cane also kept growing wildly in the Caribbean and Basil.

In the 1970s the cane culture would come back to life as an answer to the oil crisis lived at the time. In 1975 the brasilian government, with help of the World Bank, set on a programme to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil. Called Pro-Álcool, the programme staged a new expansion of the cane culture and a boom in distillery construction [P19].

Ethanol was first used as a fuel additive with 20% and 22% blends with regular gasoline. From 1980 onwards it started to be used as a pure fuel on adapted cars. These cars didn’t function properly and the automotive industry responded by shifting heavily to pure ethanol powered vehicles. In 1984 almost 95% of the cars produced in Brasil were ethanol powered.

A ethanol powered VW Brisilia from 1980. Click for more.

In 1985 the oil price dropped and regular gasoline become affordable once again. At the same time the country faced appalling internal inflation and subsidies to the cane industry were eased. By the late 1980s an ethanol supply crisis unfolded. In the 1990s, with the oil industry growing, the programme came near to halt; less than 1% of the cars produced then were ethanol powered.

Now in the dawn of the XXI century, Brasil is one of the few countries on Earth with prospects of growing its oil production, being on the brink of becoming a net oil exporter. Still, the fossil fuel supply constraints elsewhere are breathing new life to the cane industry, whose history is far from over.

Cane cutters by Fritzner Cedon. Click for more.

Lessons from History

Among the things to learn from sugar cane’s history, the most positive one is probably its relative success outside the Tropics. On a negative side is its destructive power and non sustainability when cultivated intensively; although the industrial revolution would bring some ease to that.

The plant promises a high energy return on investment, and if successful at higher latitudes can be an important element of world energy stability. But care must be taken, neither Europe nor North America offer the same kind of environment that allows natural cane growth in Brasil, the Caribbean or Indonesia. At least irrigation is a factor reducing energy returns, to be considered at higher latitudes.

One other aspect not to oversee is the cane culture high reliance on hand labour. Despite advances in mechanization, the cane harvest is still widely made by hand, hence its survival in low wage countries. If sugar cane is set to come back to wealthier nations, this issue has to be addressed.

The End

The sugar cane industry that formed in the XVI century was, by its geographic, economic and social size, something unprecedented, which would only find parallel in the Whaling and Coal industries of the XIX century.

While during its migration from the Pacific to the Indic and the Mediterranean sugar cane kept a background role, in its migration to the Atlantic sugar cane assumed the dominant role in economy and society. Sugar cane triggered an unprecedented environmental disruption and provoked the largest migratory phenomenon at the global scale, with the enslaving of millions of Africans. For these reasons sugar cane can be regarded as one of the most important cultures in our Civilization.

Is sugar cane on the brink of making History once more?

Luís de Sousa

The Oil Drum : Europe


Sugarcane History
at UNICA - São Paulo Sugarcane Agroindustry Union.

(in portuguese).

History of Sugarcane and the Environment
by Alberto Vieira (in portuguese).

at Wikipedia.

Previously in The Oil Drum: Report: Brazilian Ethanol is Sustainable.

Folks, this post represents a lot of work. Please help Luis get some readers for it by hitting those tipjars, whether it's digg, reddit, or submitting to the linkfarms such as stumbleupon, mefi, delicious, or whichever you like if you are so inclined.


You talk about the destructive nature of sugar cane production. I seem to remember that in some of last year's discussions of bio-ethanol there was reference to a Brazilian set up with a reasonable EROEI (8-ish?) and which also did not deplete its soil. I don't remember the details, but is this an oddity? or a way forward for sugar cane production?


Hi Peter,

Sugar cane was a destructive culture because it replaced immense areas of natural habitats, like the Atlantic Forest.

Check Robert’s post on Sugar Cane you’ll see that its culture depletes the topsoil, even though at a slow rate. Modern intensive Agriculture in general is not sustainable.

That 1:8 EROEI is probably an overestimate, Nate will tell you that those calculations are probably wrong. Anyway, from the brasilian 1980s experience I think there’s a good positive energy return for sugar cane ethanol.

Thanks. I missed that article first time around,


This is a remarkable document that needs wide readership. I hope it will at least pass around the internet -- it would be nice to see it as a picture book. Needs an English edit, though it is certainly perfectly readable.

Sugar cane is another of those tantalizing promises (like oil, for example) that turn out to be curses if they aren't used properly. Industrialization and greed seem to get us every time.

Obviously, the world produces abundantly for all -- but industrialization always seems to concentrate the production and restrict abundance to the few.

The job of politics is to confront this paradox.

Anybody know the percentage of cars in Brazil today that run on ethanol?

This article:

Says 20% of new cars sold are flex-fuel. They'll run on gas, ethanol, or any combination thereof.

That article is old. It's quite higher now - more than 70% of all cars sold are FFVs.

This is just one reference:

Luis - congrats on the fantastic and very fascinating write up.

And what of the SUGAR TRUST? A hundred years ago, there were 3 giant and mysterious trusts: OIL, STEEL and SUGAR.

Ida Tarbell chose to investigate the [Standard] OIL Trust because the STEEL and SUGAR Trusts defied any entry to insider, source data.
She exposed the machinations and manipulations of John Davidson Rockefeller ["The oil business is mine" was his oft repeated quote. He announced it and meant it.]

The Steel and Sugar Trust histories remain mysteries.

So the trade off here is the global corn market vs the global sugar cane market (saw grass & canada wood pulp biomass is the dark horse)
higher sugar content = higher EROI = more economical
the US has corn subsidies, the caribbean & brazil do not
(acribbean can sell direct to the US)

I have a very soft spot for Jamaica, so I hope sugar prices go through the roof!

Jamaica (if they were smart) would dollarize, would focus on sugarcane and ethanol plants, and could overall do well - this is a sea change for them
i'm afraid cuba will out do them

I've got to admit that I find the whole fuel from sugar a bit bizarre.

Surely the last thing you'd want from any fuel production system is hordes of poorly paid serfs producing a highly refined fuel for the consumption of not-that-many people.

To my mind (living in a cold northern latitude country) I'd be far more comfortable with the wood gasification fisher-tropez process.

Was it Syntec (the company) that was piloting a plant that could produce 1 litre of ethanol for 2.42 kg of dry wood.

Now if you assume a well run sustainable wood crop can yield say 15 tonnes of dried wood a year per hectare then you're looking at just shy of 6,200 litres/hectare/year (gross).
(thats 1600 US gal in old money)

You ain't going to run the world with it but it'd be a better start than flattening the rainforest.
At least in Europe we've got years of experience at running sustainable forestry operations.

I also don't understand why Brazil would export any of its ethanol. Surely they don't have too much for internal consumption. Or are they just all running on petrol now due to their oil finds?


I grew up in Abbeville, Louisiana (ground zero for Hurricane Rita a few weeks after Katrina), where the main industry (aside from oil) is sugar cane. Abbeville is the location of the Steen's Syrup company, which makes a sweet sugar cane syrup available in much of the South. It's not as dark and bitter as molasses, but much richer than maple or corn syrup, smooth and easy on pancakes or bread.

We lived down the street from the syrup mill, and in harvest season dozens of trucks would come to town loaded with sugar cane to be processed. We kids would steal cane stalks or find them fallen from trucks and eat them right there in the street, chewing on them to extract the sweet juices. It's a weird flavor, like sweet wood, that I don't care for any more, but I do still like the syrup. The whole town would smell like sweet Steen's syrup during that season as the mill boiled down and concentrated the juices.

It's great now that I can order it on the Internet; for years I had to go without after we moved away. One time when I was a kid my grandmother mailed us a big can of Steen's syrup, but it didn't arrive. Finally months later a box appeared, with dozens of fragments of other people's letters and mail stuck to the outside. Turned out the press-on lid of the syrup had come off in the mail and the box had become saturated with Steen's syrup. I guess it had been quite a mess for the post office but they finally got it to us. We opened the syrup-colored box and found the can completely empty.

Anyway I know this is OT but reading about sugar cane brought back many happy memories for me. And it's a reminder that sugar cane does still grow in the U.S. although demand for sugar cane syrup is not large. Conceivably U.S. production could be expanded if the sap were used for ethanol production.

Sugar has a very interesting history . I worked for the a Sugar Beet Growers Assn. for a while.

There is the "Sugar Act" also. The idea is you always want to have Sugar along with Oil and Steel for WARS.
We lost a lot of Sugar over Cuba, and the Beet industry had to pick up the difference.

Oddly enough, the original Abbeville, in northern France, is in the heart of the French sugar beet zone, heritage of the Napoleonic wars, as Luis notes. They are working on ethanol these days... (in French)

Thanks for sharing that. Our lives are also made of small things and memories.

Very informative article, Luis. Thanks.

I've been working in the Australian sugar industry for about eighteen years. Queensland's east coast grows about thirty five million tonnes of cane each year and the industry is very highly mechanised. We can't compete in cost of labour with most other producing regions so we have to be as efficient as possible to survive.

The big threats for us are the price of diesel for cultivation, harvest and transport to the mill, and the cost of fertiliser. Ever since I became aware of Peak Oil, I have been lobbying my bosses and influential share holders to get biodiesel on the planning radar. I must say, it is a hard slog getting people to listen. There is, now, a concerted effort to return mill mud and boiler ash to the cane fields, and minimum tillage and green-cane trash blanketing are the norm.

Our mill region is in the wet tropics, about latitude 18 degrees south. Our average annual rainfall is around 4500mm, so irrigation is not an issue for us. We crush around two million tonnes each year and produce around 250,000 tonnes of raw sugar, all for export. So far, anhydrous ethanol just doesn't make financial sense for us.

Our bagasse generates much more steam than we need to power the factory, so we cogenerate and export 10MW around the clock from June to November. This is more than enough electricity for the whole district of about 15,000 people.

I don't know how the energy crisis is going to play out, but I would rather be here than in one of the big cities. We have grass-fed cattle and banana industries in the local area and the main train line runs through the town. I walk seven minutes to work and have used less than 200 litres of petrol each year for the last four.

Have you considered using carbonized or torrefied bagasse as fuel for the harvest equipment?  There are a lot of wood-gas generator designs from WWII and earlier which would probably work just fine with either of those fuels.

I'm currently digging through these papers on torrefaction:

Thanks EP. I hadn't thought about those options at all. My focus had been on growing a few thousand hectares of coconuts or palm oil and using the spare energy at the factory to process the oil into biodiesel. One of the reasons why I really appreciate TOD is it often gets me thinking outside the box.

I'll sift through the links you've provided and get the chemical engineers at the mill to have a look too.

Don't forget carbonization also.  University of Hawaii has been doing some work with flash carbonization which might even be close to the scale you need:

WWII charcoal gasifier design from my bookmarks: (best yet)

Wood gasifier stuff (suitable for dried bagasse?):

I was working on this Self Propelled Mobile Pyrolysis Idea last fall. The idea was to take the pyrolysis equipment right to the crop and power the harvesting equipment with it.

I ran a high clearance spraying business for several years doing pre-harvest Roundup to dessicate and kill perannuals. If the fall has reasonable weather, in a cereal crop the entire stalk dies standing and dries out really well. There is a limit to the amount of cereal straw you can sustainably pull in proper soil stewardship, but flax has to be burned anyway and canola leaves no real useful straw. Oilseeds would have a high calorie value.

Robert Rapier wrote who did his post-grad work on cellulosic ethanol wrote this opinion piece on cellulosic-ethanol-vs-biomass and this cellulosic-ethanol-reality-check.

I have a blurb about building electric heavy agricultural equipment for fuel production versus attempting to convert consumer vehicles to electricity here. Large electric mining trucks have been around for a long time, pull out the diesel generator and add some zebra batteries.

This is a bus powered by zebra liquid sodium batteries:

It shouldn't be that difficult to do the same with a tractor,truck or combine that has a low travel speed and distance from the farmyard/processing plant or an exchangeable battery pack.

Hmmm... now if I just had a direct solar power plant that would work in Canada, farming might make sense. Maybe I'll run a 3000 mile extension cord from the Mojave desert to charge up my electric tractor.

Hi sugarmiller, thank you for sharing your experience.

From what I read, over there the industry is highly mechanized, so the cane cutting isn’t done by hand. Isn’t the mechanized harvest less efficient?

Do you have any idea of how much would cost sugar cane ethanol made there in Queensland?

Hi Luis.

The cost of labour here does not permit cutting by hand. We haven't done that since about 1970. Depending on the sugar price and the exchange rate, we pay the grower about $25 to $30 (AUD) for a tonne of average quality cane. The grower pays the harvest contractor about $6.50 to $7.00 per tonne. Mechanical harvesting does reduce the quality of the cane a little. We get more soil, tops and trash in the cane supply than you would cutting by hand. A lot of research effort goes into improving the ability of the harvester to clean the cane as it cuts.

Transport to the mill is done by narrow-guage railway which costs us about $1.50 per tonne. We can make a profit selling raw sugar so long as the price is above about USD 0.07 per pound at the current exchange rate.

Diesel fuel retails for about $1.20 per litre at the moment and petrol is a few cents less. Last time we did the sums, the cost to produce a litre of anhydrous ethanol was about $1.50, and it always seems to run a little bit ahead of the price of petrol.

Thanks again for your comments.

A liter of diesel costs 1€ here (1.65 AUD), although there are subsidies for agriculture. So the math might be different, but here we are at ~ 39º north.

It is very interesting to know that sugar cane isn’t yet competitive in a region at 18º south.

As I hinted in the post, the success of ethanol in Brasil is related to cheap hand labour.

Thanks Luis, this excellent article has filled important missing pieces of information in my personal education of alternative energy sources. Is there a good estimate anywhere of possible global ethanol production from cane?

Also, are there weather/climate issues here with regard to supply? I seem to remember 2000 was a tough year for rain in Brazil.

Thank you for your comments.

Is there a good estimate anywhere of possible global ethanol production from cane?

I don’t know any study of that sort. Anyway from what I learned writing this piece, and from my talk above with sugarmiller, it is getting clear that sugar cane’s EROEI can’t be as high as announced. In light of that, any direct ethanol output based on area has to be multiplied by a factor (net energy) that is intrinsic to the region in question.

Also, are there weather/climate issues here with regard to supply?

If Al Gore is right and the green house effect is getting stronger, climate conditions will get globally more favourable for cultures like sugar cane. I think that over there in the US coastal areas up to 30º north can be interesting, but I don’t know enough about US climate (present or future).

Luís de Sousa, let me add to the compliments....beautifully done article, great links and illustrations, fascinating reading!

I was glad to see some mention of sugar beets near the end. I feel that this is an area that needs more investigation. Sugar beets used to produce bio-butanol to me holds far more promise than sugar cane to produce ethanol.

Bio-butanol has not lived up to it's promise due to low yeild, but the finished fuel is beyond reproach when compared to ethanol as a gasoline replacement. Robert Rapier has done some fascinating work on this, which can be found at his website, and now Dupont Chemical and BP are undertaking a big initiative involving bio-butanol from sugar beet in the United Kingdom.
Below are some links concerning the possible development of bio-butanol as a fuel. Again, thank you for an excellent article.,,1802296,00.html

Roger Conner Jr.
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

And thank you Roger for adding this information.

Although Robert says that beet EROEI should be higher than sugar cane's I don't know yet any study on that. Beet has the obvious advantage of growing easily on higher latitudes.

Luis deSousa-more thanks for your overviews re cane sugar production. Fascinating . A global staple and I know so little of it. Want to add that the concept of "efficiency" seems too much tied to monetary profit. How did the idea of hand-labor become so degraded? One of many consequences is that our food suppply is victimized. Madness. Madness. Madness.

This was a great article, with some very interesting comments on a variety of topics. We have started, as a place to integrate all of the information on different bioenergy technologies, feedstocks, policies and sustainability issues. Our sugarcane page ( still needs a lot of work, so if you feel like contributing please come by! We also have expanding pages on biobutanol, pyrolysis and several other technologies that were mentioned in the comments.

Hello everybody here on oil drum. Its my first post and I am

feeling very glad to join this marvellous team of dedicated

volunteers who are doing a great job. Salute to the great Prof

Goose, Robert Kapier, Khabab, West Texas and many others who

are key writers here.

I just want to put in a little analysis of what i found abt

alternate/bio fuel. That could the only things we can rely on

cause sun is there and plants convert sunlight very

effectively and forms we can use.

I found that before the oil age, that is before 1800 in the

slave-run plantations in america each adult was able to

produce 5 acres sugar (not sugar cane) from 5 acres. One must

remember that it was sustainable agriculture as they were not

using any chemicals or machineries, only muscle power of men

and beasts, thats what we are going to rely on once oil and

gas are gone. I also found that if one use ethanol instead of

oil there need be 25% more ethanol used than oil.

So one barrel of oil is 160 liters, 25% more of it means 200

liters of ethanol. Now assuming that sugar can be converted

into ethanol 100% one can conclude that one ton of sugar give

enough energy as 5 barrels of oil.

The slaves used to work 60 hours a week, 3000 hours a year

under very bad working conditions. One can assume 2000 hours

of work is more realistic for non-slave farmers. So each

working farmer can produce 3.2 tons of sugar equal to 16

barrels of oil. There are always children and old people who

not work and some women must be set aside to bear children and

do households so there in effect only 40% of population are

real workers. It means 16 * 0.4= 6.4 barrels of oil per capita

production from a farming society.

To produce 32 billions barrels of oil used in world today

there need be 5 billion such people around, out of which 2

billion work and produce 16 barrels of oil each that is 32

billion barrels of oil in all.

Also we need to have put aside 6.4 billion acres of land just

for sugar cane to drive our economy. That is on known fact

that before the oil age, that is when no chemicals were put in

farms in form of pesticides and fertilizers there could be

only 1 ton of sugar (from 8 to 10 tons of sugar cane) per acre

per year.

So I conclude that to produce enough oil we have to have a

labor of 5 billion people and 6.4 billion acres of land. Even

then we can come up with only 40% of our today's energy needs.

It is because we are substituting oil only. We are not

substituting gas or coal etc.

BTW total land area in world is 37.5 billion acres out of

which if we subtract antarctica and pools we come up with 30

billion acres. Out of this only about 6 billion acres are

totally available, half to have heavy crops like rice, wheat

etc and half to have minor crops and fodder for our cattle. If

we go to that assume we practically put nothing aside for wild

life, fishes, birds etc cause we be consuming all of the

planet to fill our tummies and fuel tanks.