Increasing concerns related to energy security, global warming and climate change, depleting petroleum oil reserves, and the fluctuating price of oil have led to a demand for renewable energy resources. As a result, plant biomass has emerged as an abundant, low-cost, renewable, green energy option for conversion to fermentable sugars from which biofuels can be derived. Also of particular interest are agricultural plants such as wheat, corn and sugarcane.
Currently, the USA and Brazil are the top two producers of biofuels in the world. Cornstarch is the major biofuel feedstock in the USA, while Brazil uses sugarcane juice. Together they account for 80-90% of biofuels produced globally. Despite this, they have received heavy criticism for direct utilization of food resources for this purpose.
Alternatively, non-food agricultural waste material such as bagasse generated from milling and processing of the sugarcane crop, can be used for the production of biofuels. Bagasse is composed of approximately 80% sugars, which when broken down, can be used to make biofuels. Additionally, other chemical compounds can be produced from the process inclusive of sugar alcohols, and carboxylic acids among other compounds that have market value. These are used as chemical building blocks, where they can be converted to a number of high-value bio-based materials.
One of the more environmentally friendly and low energy methods used to derive fuels and other products from bagasse relies on biotechnology. Bacteria, in particular, are used for these purposes. This approach opens avenues for the realization of an environmentally friendly and economically feasible strategy to convert sugarcane bagasse to bioethanol and other bio-products.
Sugarcane is Barbados’ main agricultural and export crop where millions of tons of bagasse are accumulated annually. However, Barbados has not implemented any specific plan to convert the bagasse component to fermentable sugars for the production of bio-compounds, inclusive of biofuels and other value-added compounds from which revenue can be generated. Nevertheless, Barbados is considered to have a high potential for biofuel from bagasse.
The use of bagasse as a renewable resource to generate marketable bio-products is important to the diversification of the sugarcane product. The sugarcane industry can be further expanded to create not only sugar for local and international use but also for the production of biofuels for domestic use and speciality chemicals for export. Domestic production and supply of biofuels can help in reducing the cost of importing fuels by supplementing local fuel demands as several models of vehicles are designed to carry an ethanol fuel mix. Speciality chemicals derived from renewable resources are in demand world-wide. This, therefore, presents a unique opportunity for a sugarcane producing country to such as Barbados to take advantage. Such chemicals are used in the pharmaceutical and polymer industries among others.
Our research efforts are focused on the utilisation of sugarcane bagasse as a substrate for bacteria isolated from bagasse, to produce fermentable sugars and other bio-compounds. This type of research is necessary in Barbados in order to explore the production of biofuels and commercially significant bio-products from bagasse.