Bagasse, the residual sugarcane fibers after sugar extraction, is a renewable resource with a variety of different uses. The word itself stems from the French and Spanish words for “trash” or “refuse,” and has since evolved to refer to residues from any processed plant materials, but is most often used in reference to sugarcane remnants.
Although bagasse only was discovered as a sustainable material in the late eighties, it has since grown in versatility and popularity.
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The first renewable use of bagasse was as fuel. In economies where the cost of oil, natural gas, and electricity are high, bagasse became an inexpensive, somewhat sustainable form of fuel.
The negative environmental effects of burning bagasse are moderate,with the most significant pollutants being particulate matter and ash. Bagasse burns less sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) than conventional fossil fuels since it contains lower levels of both sulfur and nitrogen.
Often, the bagasse is used to fuel sugar mills. The amount of carbon dioxide released by begasse is equal to the amount absorbed by the mill, making the process of cogeneration greenhouse gas-neutral. Research is currently being done to find a cost and time efficient method of converting bagasse into ethanol.
Bagasse is also used as a type of paper. In contrast to wood, it releases less greenhouse gases, minimizes deforestation, and uses less transportation energy (since the bagasse is already found in production plants). In addition, less bleaching and chemical treatment is needed for bagasse paper.
In some South American countries, almost 20% of paper manufactured is made from bagasse. The paper is utilized for such things as disposable coffee cups, pressed building board, acoustical tile, and other construction materials, to name a few.
A more recent use of bagasse is for oil absorbency. Bagasse is a natural absorbent, especially when reinforced with ammonia and microbes. Some researchers believe that bagasse could be used to clean up areas of the BP Gulf oil spill, by spreading the fibers on top of the water like a mat. Bagasse can absorb the same amount of oil whether it is wet or dry, and it is predicted that within the first 90 days of using the material, some 98% of the oil could be absorbed. Furthermore, the bagasse actually changes the chemistry of the crude oil once it is absorbed, to become a self-composting, soil like substance.
Bagasse use as a renewable resource instead of just sugarcane refuse is growing rapidly. While in 1985 21 sugar factories were in production, only 14 remained by the year 2000. The introduction of bagasse as a versatile material is boosting the sugar industry as well as conserving wood and minimizing carbon emissions.