Sugar Mills

Sugar Mill

A sugar mill is a facility where sugar cane is milled and processed into raw sugar. Occasionally sugar mills will also function as refineries, producing ICUMSA 45, ICUMSA 100, ICUMSA 150, and other types of refined sugar. Sugar mills have seen a considerable boom over the past five years, as the global sugar market continues to expand, and other sugar cane products such as sugar ethanol have seen a substantial rise in popularity. Investment in sugar mills has also been steadily rising during this time, sparking further developments in sugar technology as well as fueling expansion of many existing mills.

Through The Sugar Mill

The basic function of a sugar mill is to mill sugar cane. After the sugar cane is harvested in the field, it is brought to the sugar mill, where it is washed to remove dirt and bugs, stripped of any remaining leaves, and then set on a conveyor belt which carries it to a shredding device. The sugar cane is chopped and shredded then passed through a series of rollers, which squeeze the natural juices from the fiber of the cane.

At the end of this process, the mill is left with two products. There is the brown juice which contains high levels of sucrose, and the dry fiber of the sugar cane, which is known as bagasse. In many cases bagasse is burned to fuel the mill, and in others it may be sold to be used in other applications, such as charcoal briquettes, and disposable tableware.

The sugar juice, known as “raw juice” is usually strained and sieved to remove the small particles of bagasse and other biomatter which can escape with the juice through the rollers. The water in the raw juice is then evaporated to leave behind dark sticky brown crystallized raw sugar. In some cases product may be sold as is, or in other cases, the mill may process it further on site.

If the mill is producing VHP raw sugar, instead of evaporating the water from the raw juice, the juice is boiled to concentrate it, and when cooled, sugar dust is added to the juice. This encourages crystallization of the sucrose in the juice. When crystallization has taken place, the mix is sent into a centrifugal chamber, which is simply a rotating drum. The chamber rotates at very high speeds, separating the solid sugar crystals from the liquid. The resulting crystals are VHP raw sugar. This process is repeated on the separated liquid twice more in order to extract all the possible sucrose.

Some sugar mills also incorporate sugar ethanol production facilities. As sugar prices have fallen, and demand for alternative fuels has increased, sugar ethanol has become a big earner for many sugar mills.

Brazil’s Sugar Mills

The world’s leading sugar mills can be found in Brazil, where the sugar mill has become something of an art form. Brazilian sugar mills are incredibly efficient, so efficient in fact, that many of them actually generate power in the process of milling sugar cane, and make a profit by selling energy back to the national grid. Their outputs are among the highest of any mills in the world, and whilst this is due, in part, to the sheer volume of sugar cane processed in these mills, a great part of it is to do with finely tuned technology and a scientific approach to the business of milling sugar cane.

Sugar mills employ a wide range of employees, from unskilled laborers to highly trained scientists. Manual laborers carry out basic tasks, whilst sugar scientists analyze sugar cane, processes, and products. Many mills go so far as to develop their own strands of sugar cane, specifically suited to their needs, and many of the innovations that have taken place in the field of sugar technology have been through the endeavors of these private sector scientists.

Research and development is an important part of business for many major sugar mills, and the technologies which are developed in the major Brazilian sugar mills are often then shared throughout the world. VHP raw sugar originated in Brazilian sugar mills, and teams of Brazilian sugar scientists, many working in the private sector, were responsible for sequencing the sugar cane genome.

Efficiency is the watchword for a Brazilian sugar mill. Many sugar mills recycle the water which is used to wash sugar cane after it is brought in from the field, channeling the water back to ponds where it can be used for irrigation, and where the dirt and silt carried along with it can settle to the bottom where it can be gathered and used as fertilizer.

In order to ensure that processes are efficient as possible, sugar mills often employ efficiency teams who work to ensure that the mill’s processes, machinery, and workers are all being maximized to their full potential.

Because sugar mills tend to be located in countries with large populations of poor people (Brazil, India, Thailand, and China, to name a few), sugar mills are often a major source of employment for local workers as well as seasonal ones who will often travel long distances to arrive for the harvesting season. In the case of Brazilian sugar mills, these seasonal workers are given accommodation and meals for the duration of the harvest. Whilst this might seem extravagant, it is simply another way to maximize productivity. Well rested, well fed harvesters work far more efficiently than those who are tired or ill. Good harvesters are an important asset to the sugar mill, and are often rewarded with incentives which keep them returning year after year. The harvest is back breaking work, but it also requires a level of skill so as to not damage the roots of the plant whilst removing the stems, so good harvesters are worth a great deal to a sugar mill.

In the case of Brazilian sugar mills the sugar cane plantation which provides the cane for the mill is usually owned by the mill itself, this allows the mill to control the quality of the product right from the time it is planted. Other countries, such as India, do not follow this paradigm, and as a result often have more problems sourcing quality sugar cane for their mills.

Sugar Environmental Impact

Brazil’s Sao Paulo region refused to issue new licenses to sugar mills in mid 2007 amid fears about the environmental impact the rapidly growing sugar industry was having. Whilst sugar mills are relatively ‘green’, recycling water and bagasse, and generating enough power to run their operations without drawing from the national grid, there are some areas of operation where the environment can be impacted negatively. Run off from fertilizers can affect water supplies if sugar cane fields are too close to rivers, and the carbon produced when fields are burned for the harvest is no small matter either, sending black clouds full of carbon billowing into the sky. Then there is the additional burden of having an influx of harvesters into the region periodically, not to mention increased production facilities and plantations themselves cutting into the habitats of local creatures.

Outside Brazil, rapid expansion in the sugar industry is causing similar concerns to be voiced in other sugar producing countries where mills are often less advanced and less environmentally friendly. Like any industrial operation, environmental impact must be carefully monitored, however the good news concerning sugar mills is that there are many ways to reduce negative environmental impact through sustainable technologies, attention to recycling, and responsible manufacturing processes.

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