Markets & Sectors

How Drives Work In Sugar Production

7 Nov , 2017  

As the EU sugar quota system ended in September 2017, major producers across Europe have been busy gearing up to increase their output capacity. Here, the latest motor and drive technologies are great facilitators of faster/higher production, particularly when supplied as part of an integrated and managed solution.

Sugar is the only agricultural sector in the EU where production was subject to a quota system. The total EU production quota of 13.5 million tonnes of sugar was divided between 20 member states, and was introduced with the first rules set by the sugar common market organisation (CMO) in 1968. At the time, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) had as one of its main objectives the self-sufficiency of the continent for its food production by encouraging agricultural production with remunerative and stable prices for farmers. Quotas, together with a support price, provided an incentive to achieve these goals in the sugar sector.

Sugar production

With the end of the quota system, sugar exports will no longer be limited by WTO rules, allowing producers to fully explore new markets and possibilities. Without regulatory limits, sugar plant are now working to optimise the use of their capacity and reduce the unit cost of producing sugar. The situation for the coming post-quota years is analysed in the European Commission’s medium-term outlook report, which estimates that sugar production will increase by 6% through to 2026.

Most of the EU’s sugar beet is grown in the northern half of Europe, where the climate is most suited to producing this type of crop. Here, a number of sugar production facilities are looking to take advantage of the relaxation in quota regulations by increasing their output capacity, often by as much as 30%.

Sugar plant upgrade projects can take many forms, ranging from enhanced wash workshops through to more efficient conveyor capabilities between processes.

Wash workshops are pivotal in production throughput as they are typically the first stop for sugar beet arriving directly from the field. These facilities serve as weed catchers, washing and de-stoning the beet ready for processing.

By upgrading to high efficiency, three-phase induction motors with soft starters and modular variable speed drives (VSDs), for example, plants can achieve notable gains in productivity from weed-catchers and stoners, as well as conveyor belts and pumping units. Due to the diversity of the machinery and equipment found in sugar refineries, both standard and customised solutions will likely be required. For instance, the plant may benefit from linking together VSDs in a master and slave configuration in order to meet specific needs.

In almost all applications, a partnership approach with a reputable motor and drives specialist will pay dividends, especially one able to provide a fully integrated and managed solution. A complete package offer should include not just products, but full commissioning, on-site training and aftersales service, including 24-7 access to support and spare parts. Sugar production is a high-octane process and downtime can be extremely costly.

The EU is the world’s leading producer of beet sugar, commanding around 50% of the total. However, beet represents only 20% of the globe’s sugar output; the other 80% is produced from sugar cane.

Sugar production

The nature of sugar cane crops means that plants based in more tropical climates can take advantage, with Southeast Asia a major producer. As a rough guide it takes around 10 million tons of sugar cane to produce 1 million tons of sugar. With this in mind, speed of throughput at large producers is often determined by the efficient delivery of sugar cane between processes.

To help keep up with demand, many sugar plants are scrutinising their sugar cane conveyors, eyeing modular VSDs as an optimum upgrade path. Producers are attracted to the low harmonics of the latest VSD technologies. Through available modules, some VSDs also offer an encoder input to provide closed-loop rotor flux control (RFC-A) for induction motors. This is vital as the equipment is conveying sugar cane to each process station, including a crushing station. Sugar plants need to run at full capacity, particularly during peak months when the crop comes into season. Any downtime during these months can very damaging to supply in the off-season.

By way of example, a typical sugar cane plant using modern VSDs might be able to control conveyors with 0Hz at full torque, thus enhancing performance. Conveyors will also exhibit better overload torque in RFC-A mode.

Another principal reason behind the growing trend for VSDs at sugar refineries is the potential for task-based commissioning, diagnostics and maintenance, which in turn helps minimise downtime at high-volume sugar plants.

In support of upgrade projects, a ‘partner’ drives provider should be able to offer commissioning software tools that help reduce downtime considerably. The latest drive configuration tools help to commission, optimise and monitor drive/system performance. Graphical formats are used to enhance and simplify the user experience, although, for experienced users, dynamic drive logic diagrams and enhanced searchable listings can also be found in modern systems.

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Chris Corfield

Chris Corfield