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Alkol Biotech signs agreement with sugarcane producing city in Europe
Madrid, August 13 2014 - If you thought that sugarcane does not grow in Europe, you’d be surprised to know that it did grow in Spain for over 200 years. In fact, half of Spain’s sugar production at one time came from that crop, especially from the southern city of Motril, in the Andalusia region. In fact, the city is located in a valley which is continuously irrigated by the Sierra Nevada ice, and its abundant sun makes it an ideal region for that rather tropical crop. Thus, at one time not only the city but the entire Malaga region was planted with that crop, feeding 12 sugar mills which in turn meant half of Spain’s sugar actually came from sugarcane.

However, the region’s production methods and reduced land area ended up being unsuitable for today’s modern sugarcane techniques. In fact, the region used to import sugarcane varieties from South Africa and USA in order to produce just sugar. This created a surcharge on the final product, as royalties had to be paid to use those varieties, thus making its sugar uncompetitive with Europe’s sugarbeet’s. Also, the crushed residue (called “bagasse”) was not used at all, whereas today is seen as the best source for cellulosic ethanol and electricity production. The end result is that what was Europe’s only sugarcane producing growers turned to other crops or sold their lands to become hotels.

A new project may however bring back that history, but now not as a growing region, but as a development and test lab for new sugarcane varieties, and concretely for one destined to provide Europe with suitable biomass for it’s 2020 7% limitation on 1st generation ethanol. To that end, the company behind the project, Alkol Biotech, signed an agreement with the council of the city of Motril in the Andalusia region of Spain to develop what could be Europe’s first sugarcane development lab.

The lab will develop new sugarcane varieties with better characteristics, such as better resistance to the mosaic virus or pests, higher sugar or fiber yields, more resistance to chemicals, etc. These varieties will be then exported to sugarcane growing countries such as USA, Brazil, China, etc, and royalties charged for their use. It will also allow new chemicals such as pesticides to be tested on its growing regions, thus bypassing today’s need to test them in foreign countries where that crop is found such as Brazil. Finally, it will generate biomass for testing in Europe of 2G production methods and enzymes, thus preventing the same problem.

But the lab’s first sugarcane variety will actually be a hybrid of sugarcane and a local herb such as Miscanthus, Brachiaria, Arundo, etc. This kind of hybrid, known in the market as “energy cane”, will have a better resistance to cold and dry areas, and thus it will be able to prosper in regions where regular sugarcane could not. This will allow to expand the growing regions to other countries in Europe such as Italy, Greece, etc, and will provide inexpensive cellulose for Europe’s 2020 7% limitation’s on 1st generation ethanol.

“We are actually inverting the whole story, as yesterday the city only grew sugarcane, and now it will create new ones. Also, whereas yesterday it paid royalties to sugarcane centers, it will now charge for the varieties it creates”, explains Al Costa, Alkol’s general manager.

As explained by the city’s mayor, Luisa Garcia Chamorro, “This initiative brings a number of benefits to the region which are beyond regular sugarcane production. It would be great for our valley if we could recover something which was so rooted in our local culture as was sugarcane, and also create options to our industry professionals that could diversify their business, turning the city into a reference of innovation and sustainability. Currently we could provide about 500 acres of land in our region to promote the initiative”

It is a promising project, but not without pitfalls, as Costa mentions. “Europe has a very limited knowledge base on that crop. In fact, the only place in the continent where you can still find knowledgeable people is in Motril. As such, we will also bring expertise from similar centers from abroad, such as Brazil’s CTC (Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira), or South Africa’s SASRI (South African Sugarcane Research Institute) in order to maximise the center’s scientifical expertise. At the end, we will bring technology from abroad which will create jobs to the region and opportunities for Europe as now also being a sugarcane R&D hub”.

About Alkol
Alkol Biotech is a leading feedstock research company with offices in Madrid and São Paulo. The company performs research on a variety of feedstocks in order to obtain better yields, more resistance to pests, and the ability to grow in marginal land. The end result is any biofuel based on that plant variety is more sustainable, has a lower price, and is thus more capable to compete with regular fossil fuels. The company's lead research is on a hybrid of sugarcane and native grasses which is able to grow in cold and dry climates and has more fiber, thus being ideal for cellulosic ethanol projects.