Sunshine Sugar will soon be capturing the water in its sugar cane to bottle for human consumption.
A joint venture between the NSW Sugar Milling Co-operative and the Manildra Group, Sunshine Sugar owns and runs the three sugar mills at Condong, Broadwater and Harwood.
It has teamed up with AquaBotanical, an Australian company based at Mildura in Victoria, to make the product using innovative technology which harvests water at the same time juice is made.
Sunshine Sugar’s chief executive officer Chris Connors is excited by the development and said it will deliver key benefits to the environment and the community.
“At the moment it just goes out to the atmosphere, or goes back into the river, so what better way to harness something and deliver a great product for everybody,” he said.
“It’s a great outcome for the business. It’s all part of our strategic plan which is diversification so we can add to the bottom line in these tough times.
“And when you look at the issues around the region at the moment, particularly around water, mining, this one’s completely the opposite. We’re simply taking the water out of the cane.”
Mature sugar cane stalks contain more than 60% moisture which until now has remained a wasted product in the Australian sugar industry.
“The water gets squeezed out anyway as part of the sugar production process and then goes into an evaporator condenser system. So it’s already there. We’ll just polish it up a little bit,” Mr Connors said.
“After the juice has been condensed, effectively we’ve got a water that is as pure as you can get.
“But we’ll make sure it’s got no issues and we’ll put it through some reverse osmosis plants.
“You can’t have calories and other sweeteners in water, it’s purely water. I don’t think I need to argue that.”
The equipment will be installed at Condong Mill with the first batch due for bottling in September.
There are plans to have the other two mills and a bottling plant operational within three years.
Massive new income stream
Between eight to 10 million litres will be bottled in the first year, with the output expected to increase to 60 million when all three mills are capturing water.
Mr Connors said the equipment and technology will enable the mills to have the capacity to collect 140 to 150 million litres a year.
Sunshine Sugar estimates that the project will cost $5 million to $6 million over a five year period, but Mr Connors said the payback will be great.
“I expect around $2 million profit over the next couple of years, and then after bottling and everything it will be significantly more,” he said.
“It’s exactly the same as what we’re doing with our low GI sugar, where we’ve got a healthy product and it just keeps ticking the boxes as far as our credentials go.”
The Sunshine Sugar boss said that the water could be exported to China, where AquaBotanical is already exporting its fruit and vegetable water, from as early as October this year.
“At this point we know we’ve got the demand. We’ve actually got people that want it now, so it’ll be part of the overall expansion,” he said.
Water already ‘grown’ from tomatoes, carrots
While capturing the water in cane might be new for the Australian sugar industry, the technology has already been used to bottle water from fruit and vegetables.
The patented technology was developed by Dr Bruce Kambouris, a trained chemical engineer, in Mildura in 2012 and has collected water from tomato and carrot rejects sent for juicing.
AquaBotanical’s executive chairman Terry Paule said that the technology delivers on the simple concept of capturing water that naturally occurs in plants.
“We catch rain water and mineral water and river water, but plants are a natural source of water. We can harvest that water for drinking purposes or even operational purposes,” he said.
“Most of the sugar industry globally works on a big evaporator system, I think generally there are five stages of evaporation, and each stage literally throws away billions of litres of water.
“The technology allows us to harvest the water from all sorts of plants, so as you’d appreciate there will be subtle differences in the composition as we take out any flavours or aromas or toxins and create a standard natural water.”
The technology has also been trialled in the sugar cane industry in India, the world’s largest consumer of sugar and second largest producer, where water scarcity is a major issue.
The company has set up the Botanical Water Foundation to use the technology to harvest water from cane for operational use as well as much needed fresh drinking water for local communities.
The Australian sugar milling industry could also use excess water collected in other ways.
“There’s an opportunity there for operational water so that we can clean and fill boilers and equipment,” Mr Paule said.
“We can even re-hydrate aquifers with it. The technology allows us to pump any surplus water back into the water table. So there’s another opportunity there.
“It’s very, very exciting. It’s actually a world first, and we’re very proud that it’s an Australian invention.”
Mr Paule said that the set-up costs of the technology are quite low because existing infrastructure is used.
“We don’t need to go along to build new factories anywhere in the world, we attach the technology to existing processors,” he said.
“In fact, the unit that we’ll be using with Sunshine Sugar sits in a 40 foot shipping container. You can move it around if you really want to.
“You plug in what is effectively the water coming out of the sugarcane at one end, and clean, green and safe drinking water comes out the other end.”