Funding boost for sugar beet project

Scientists at the University of York are developing a low cost, environmentally friendly method of processing sugar beet without the need for major industrial processing plants

The Betabeet project is developing innovative new processing techniques to refine sugar beet into citric acid and sucrose syrup – essential raw materials used extensively by food, drink and cosmetic manufacturers. Byproducts from the process could include animal feed, soil conditioner and biogas.

The project has received a £60,000 grant from the UK Government’s Sustainable Innovation Fund, awarded by Innovate UK to help UK businesses and the public sector recover from COVID-19 in a sustainable manner.

The research, led by Dr Jamie Wood from the University’s Departments of Biology and Mathematics, uses cold-pressing technology to release sucrose syrup with the remaining sugar beet pulp fermented to produce citric acid.

Refining process

Tests show the refining process works in the laboratory. Now the researchers are working on techniques to stabilise the sugar syrup before collaborating with the University’s Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC) to scale-up production to meet industry needs.

The technique being developed by Dr Wood and his team could pave the way for smaller, more efficient sugar beet processing facilities.

Dr Wood said:

“The key barrier to the development of sugar processing in the North of England is not lack of markets or unwillingness of farmers to grow the crop – it is access to processing facilities.

“As a result, the UK currently imports all the citric acid and half the sugar that the country consumes. Betabeet aims to re-establish a  local supply chain in the North of England for these key platform chemicals.”

Dr Wood added:

“The development of a beet processing industry in the North of England will deliver good jobs in areas hard hit by COVID-19 and enable businesses to ‘build back better’ after the pandemic.”

Export markets

If the process is successful, it opens up the possibility of home-grown sugar beet supplying all the UK’s needs, capturing around $50m value within the UK, and also providing excess for export markets that are estimated to grow by 50 per cent over the next five years. It could also create a more sustainable, local source of citric acid and sugar for the North of England’s food, beverage and personal care manufacturers.

Innovate UK Executive Chair Dr Ian Campbell said:

“In these difficult times we have seen the best of British business innovation. The pandemic is not just a health emergency but one that impacts society and the economy.

“Betabeet, along with every initiative Innovate UK has supported through this fund, is an important step forward in driving sustainable economic development. Each one is also helping to realise the ambitions of hard-working people.”

Hull-based Bio-D who manufactures environmentally friendly cleaning products are supporting the Betabeet project.

Heather Nixon, Quality and Regulatory Manager said:

“We are excited to be involved in this project as over the past year our supply chain for citric acid has become challenging. To be working with the University of York and local farmers on the Betabeet project is a great way to meet this need sustainably while supporting local businesses.”

The next step for the project is to seek funding for a prototype small scale beet processing and fermentation plant.

British Sugar closed its York processing plant in 2006 leaving the company’s plant in Newark as the nearest facility for Yorkshire beet growers. At the time, the National Farmers Union claimed the closure could affect around 1,500 jobs.

Notes to editors:

The BDC is part-funded by the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020

Innovate UK, as part of UK Research and Innovation, is investing up to £191 million to fund single and collaborative research and development projects as part of the Sustainable Innovation Fund over the next two years. The aim of these competitions is to help all sectors of the UK rebuild after the effects of COVID-19.

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