Sugar beet plan to power sustainable future for Scotland

Switching to a local supply of bioethanol produced from sugar beet rather than relying on imports from Europe, as Scotland currently does, could significantly reduce the country’s carbon footprint by more than 280,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, it has been claimed.

Mark Bustard, Chief Executive Officer at IBioIC.
Mark Bustard, Chief Executive Officer at IBioIC.

And the domestic cultivation of sugar beet, along with the creation of a purpose-built biorefinery facility initially producing bioethanol, could also support thousands of jobs according to a study funded by Scottish Enterprise and produced by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC).

Fifty years after the closure of Scotland’s main sugar beet factory at Cupar, the report found that at least 815 jobs could be directly created by moving towards domestically produced bioethanol – along with hundreds more through associated supply chain and logistics services.

Sugar extracted from sugar beet can be used in the production of ethanol as a natural and sustainable substitute for petroleum-based chemicals used in a range of household goods, as well as antibiotics, therapeutic proteins, and for transportation.

The report claimed that the crop could also safeguard many of the 11,000 jobs in Scotland’s chemicals industry, which was increasingly moving towards fossil fuel alternatives, and creating new roles in the burgeoning biotechnology sector – many of which would likely be in rural and deprived areas.

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The study builds on crop trials conducted in 2020 that found Scotland could grow sugar beet at competitive yields. IBioIC’s report sets an initial target of growing one million tonnes of sugar beet annually, which could in turn produce 110 million litres of bioethanol per year – expected to be around 75 per cent of Scotland’s current needs for transport.

And two areas were identified as being most suitable for the location of a bioethanol plant; Dundee for its proximity to suitable agricultural land and Grangemouth, because of its access to power generation, water treatment, a major port, and existing presence of chemicals companies.

Outlining the potential of home-grown biofuels, Mark Bustard, Chief Executive Officer at IBioIC, said that the new E10 mandate – which sees petroleum fuel blended with 10 per cent bioethanol – effectively doubled the need for sustainably sourced ethanol overnight.

But he said this was merely a precursor to much bigger changes ahead which could be produced from a sustainable, indigenous sugar supply: “Many of the largest consumer goods manufacturers in the world have committed to net-zero carbon targets and moving away from products made from petrochemicals is a big part of that drive.”

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Bustard said that bio-based production was the future of manufacturing in a net-zero Scotland and sugar beet lay at the core of Scotland’s opportunity to develop a sustainable feedstock and compete on the global stage: “Not only could it safeguard many of the thousands of jobs in our existing chemicals sector, but it could create hundreds more through new opportunities and manufacturing methods. It is up to us now to take this first step towards a more environmentally friendly and future-proofed manufacturing supply chain, at the heart of a bioeconomy.”

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