Sugarcane has been found to be the preferred feedstock for the production of bio-products, in an environmental life cycle assessment comparing Australian sugarcane with US corn and UK sugar beet.
The research, which received funding from The Cooperative Research Centre for Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology (CRC SIIB), states the main advantages of sugarcane include its high sugar yields and the displacement of fossil fuels with surplus renewable energy from cane fibre (bagasse).
When compared with corn and sugar beet, these advantages lead to lower fossil energy input, greenhouse gas emissions and possibly less acidification potential, per unit of bio-product.
The potential trade-offs for cane, compared with these other crops, are a higher potential for nitrogen loss and higher water use.
Overall, the research shows environmental advantages can be delivered by crops that can provide high yields, use nitrogen efficiently with minimal loss to the environment, and produce by-products that displace high-impact commodities which are likely to have a larger environment footprint.
The main opportunities for further improving cane's relative environmental performance are precise management of nitrogen and improved water use efficiency.
Research scholar with the University of Queensland's School of Geography, Planning and Architecture, Marguerite Renouf, said the assessment provides the Australian sugar industry and those interested in the development of biofuels with highly valuable data.
"The energy and greenhouse benefits of sugarcane as a source of bio-products, found through our environmental life cycle assessment, will hopefully help with future decision making about the crop’s future potential," she said.
"And, we are working on further research in this area, to be published later this year."
CRC SIIB chief executive, Peter Twine, said the latest research outcomes provide the Australian sugar industry with an insight into sugar diversification opportunities.
"The CRC SIIB is committed to working towards the commercial development of biomaterials that will give the sugar industry and other interested entities a sustainable competitive edge," Dr Twine said.
"Continual research into this area will benefit the Australian sugarcane industry and future biomaterial industries, as we work towards identifying and providing the tools to produce high-value biomaterials from sugarcane."