Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The smell of success

The towers of Wissington sugar beet plant loom into sight
I have lived most of my adult life in East Anglia but I only know one thing about the region's staple winter crop, sugar beet. It stinks!
Get anywhere near one of the big sugar beet processing plants in the winter when beet processing is at its peak and you can't mistake the huge plumes of steamy smoke and the sour smell in the air.
The River Wissey goes right past one of these plants so fortunately it wasn't beet season but the looming towers, masses of groaning pipes and strange collections of shadowy girders look exactly like the sort of antediluvian, Heath Robinson and sinister factories you might imagine producing toxic chemicals in a decrepit region of Soviet Siberia.
What you absolutely wouldn't think was that this is the largest sugar beet plant in the world, the most efficient in Europe and that its processes are state of the art. Nor would you think that byproducts include 70 million - yes 70 million - tomatoes a year grown in acres of on-site greenhouses, bio-ethanol fuel and enough electricity for 120,000 people. All of which I have found out here.
Seventy million tomatoes a year come from here
Very briefly then: three million tons of sugar beet come to the factory from 1500 growers. The soil is cleaned off (and re-sold as topsoil) then they are sliced and mixed with water in diffusers to extract the sugar. The remaining fibre is then compressed and dried and turned into pellets which are sold as animal feed. Seemingly it's the drying that causes those smelling clouds of steam.
The juice is heated in various steps to turn into a thick syrup and get rid of impurities and dispose of surplus water. But the clever bit of the process is a complex heat recovery system which allows this heated water to be recovered and used elsewhere - for example to the 11 hectares of tomato greenhouses across the other side of the river.
The factory also has a gas turbine powered combined heat and power plant that produces steam and electricity, the surplus of which goes back to the Grid.
And another part of the factory produces over 50,000 tons of bio-ethanol a year by fermenting some of the sugar syrup.
Altogether it's remarkably clever and a huge industrial success story. So why do I and you and virtually everyone in Britain except the people who work there know anything about the place?
I wish I knew the answer. Perhaps it's because we spend too much time as a nation dwelling on disasters or unpleasantness or listening to politicians bash each other with sound bite politics and not enough promoting the things we do well.

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