LSR Sugar

The Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is dotted with plants for manufacturing and handling products such as chemicals, petrochemicals, grains and fertilizers. But sugar refining there predates the carbon economy and extends back to plantation days.

Now the latest technologies will streamline the sugar refining process in a $119 million upgrade of a century-old plant in Gramercy, La., on the Mississippi River approximately halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The plant will process up to 1 million tons of sugar annually and is being developed and is owned by Louisiana Sugar Refining LLC, which is a joint venture of Cargill Inc., Wayzata, Minn.; Imperial Sugar, Sugar Land, Texas; and Sugar Growers and Refiners Inc. (SUGAR), Breaux Bridge, La., a co-operative of more than 800 sugar growers and eight raw sugar mills.

The joint venture is managing its construction – which broke ground after Thanksgiving 2009 – and its operation upon its substantial completion, which is projected to be in September. “The biggest challenge we have is it’s a brownfield site where we’re integrating the project into and in some aspects connecting to an old existing refinery,” General Manager Red Geurts explains. “We’re using part of the old refinery that Imperial has been operating here – it’s about a 100-year-old refinery site – integrating and working around the existing refinery while that continues to run and interconnecting to that.

“The sugar refining business is not a hugely glamorous world,” Geurts maintains. “The biggest thing we bring is a new refinery. The first totally standalone white sugar refinery constructed in decades in the United States will bring a level of automation to the project that will hopefully help us compete nationally with supplying sugar to the marketplace. From a construction technique standpoint, it’s a pretty straightforward project.”

Part of the project is making improvements to the old refinery. Geurts estimates when the project is complete approximately 37,500 square feet will be new construction and 52,000 square feet will be rebuilt operations in the old facility. Additionally, 15,000 square feet will be existing operations for old plant utilities and 135,000 square feet will be existing raw sugar warehouses in the old plant. Some buildings date back to 1910 but are still operating, and the equipment inside has been changed or upgraded since then. “It’s an old refinery – it’s seen better days,” Geurts concedes.

The second-biggest challenge has been a very aggressive construction schedule, Geurts declares. “It’s self-imposed to get us up on a new refinery in a very timely fashion,” he points out. “With the cost of capital and to get the return on capital, the sooner you get the clock started, the better off you are.”

Flood and Drought

Ironically, the project has been challenged by both a drought and an abundance of water. Although recent flooding of the Mississippi River was not affecting the plant site at press time, an abundance of rainfall last year affected construction. Now, a drought in the sugar-growing region while the Mississippi floods from rainfall further north threatens to reduce sugar cane yields.

“We’ve got an interesting dilemma – more water than we know what to do with in the river, and we can’t get enough rain to keep the crops and the culture viable down here right now,” Geurts maintains. “A minor amount of acreage is affected by the flooding – probably as much or more is affected by the drought conditions than the flooding conditions.” 

But in 2010, it was the rain that challenged construction. “At this point in the project last spring, it was raining almost every day, and we had record rainfall,” remembers Cargill Inc. Project Manager Chris Bartels, who functions as construction manager on the project. “Every time it rains, the site becomes challenging to work in and around. The subcontractors have come up with methods to deal with that and manage water on-site and still remain productive. Those are all things that certainly were helpful to us.”

Typical rainfall in this region, which is near the Gulf of Mexico, occurs every afternoon because of the flow of moist air from the Gulf. “This area typically gets rain from 3 to 7 p.m. of some sort, but for some reason, the winds have shifted, and we have not seen any substantial rain in the last 45 days,” Geurts complains. “Before that, it was pretty strong rain. That’s part of the reason they can grow sugar cane down here – it’s a fairly wet and moist climate.”

High Water Table

To receive the cost advantages of inexpensive water transportation, the plant has always been located close to the Mississippi River. “We are building fairly close to the river, and we’ve had to work with the Army Corps of Engineers and the local levee district to secure permits for constructing in the area we’re building,” Bartels says. “To some degree, that leaves us at the mercy of the river levels. Right now, the river is very high, and our permits don’t allow us to do any excavating. That was one of the challenges we had to work around. Our piling and foundation contractor was very flexible to work around that.”

We are building fairly close to the river, and we’ve had to work with the Army Corps of Engineers and the local levee district to secure permits for constructing in the area we’re building.

 

The water table is high on the site, approximately 4 to 6 feet below grade. “In terms of foundations, there is no bedrock in this area,” Bartels points out. “So we had a lot more piles than you would on a normal project.” The 1,195 concrete piles used on the project are 14 inches square and extend approximately 75 feet deep.

Louisiana Sugar Refining is acting as its own general contractor. “We have hired Cargill’s engineering and construction management team – which Chris manages on-site – to do the design and manage the construction of the project,” Geurts explains. “We’ve put together a construction management team that consists of some Cargill employees – their engineering and construction management people – as well as direct-hire contract employees that stay on-site for the duration of the project and deliver the finished project.”

Cargill does not have a centralized engineering and construction group, Bartels points out. “We’ve got more of a decentralized organization, and we pulled resources from several different geographies to make up this project team – some folks from Dayton, Ohio, I’m from Blair, Neb. – and then we’ve even had some folks from Cargill facilities overseas that have helped, as well,” Bartels explains.

Bartels works for Cargill’s corn milling business. “The corporate milling business unit and the sugar business unit are combined in their efforts to build this project, as they’re part of the joint venture down here,” Bartels adds. 

Some Old, Some New

The new buildings at the plant include the main new refinery – which is being built on a vacant piece of property – the storage and load-out building and a third raw sugar receiving building that will be constructed later. Improvements to the existing refinery include a new load-out facility over the existing railroad track adjacent to the old load-out facility.

“At some point in time, we will demolish the old load-out facility and clear that site out,” Geurts promises. “We’re just operating on the new facility – the old load-out facility has already been shut down. We’ll continue to use the existing natural gas boilers and steam turbines to produce the power and energy and heat sources we need for the processes. We’ll continue to use the wastewater treatment system that was here with some minor improvement to it to handle the increased capacity of the new plant. Once the new refinery is online, the majority of the refining operations in the old refinery will be shut down, and those buildings demolished over a period of time.”

The buildings are constructed around the liquid processes they enclose. “We really don’t go by square footage,” Geurts says. “We don’t really measure it out because we’re all liquid processes – a lot of tanks and pumps and piping. They’re mostly all enclosed buildings – a few minor tanks sit outside, but very few.”

The buildings have concrete foundations with steel for the building structure and stainless steel piping inside for the process. “We did purchase structural steel at an advantageous time, when it came down off its high,” Bartels concedes. “We have seen a little bit of appreciation in the stainless steel pricing for process piping, but nothing like the market saw three to four years ago.” 

Automated Production

The old refinery had a mix of automation depending on when the system was installed. “There was some automation to some of the unit operations throughout the plant, but not the level of automation you need today to control and interface,” Bartels remarks. “At that level, they can truly stabilize the process much easier. You can almost see the development of automation over the years as you go through the plant. Some spots are completely manual, some parts are pneumatic control, other parts are programmable logic controllers.

“In terms of automation in the old existing facility, it’s what I would call a very hands-on facility,” he adds. “People out in the plant are throwing hand valves and manually operating the equipment. Whereas the new facility we’re building has a centralized control room. Our expectation is there won’t be the same level of need for hands-on because of the automation that the team is bringing to the project.”

The plant’s automation partner is Siemens, which will install its distributed control system. The technology is similar to that used in other process industries. “Siemens has shown the most leadership for automating sugar processing equipment throughout the world of any of the automation people,” Geurts maintains. “That’s part of why we were attracted to them. But they were also very competitive in their bidding, because they have invested heavily in the sugar industry and brought some of that to the table. The equipment is a fully automated process and really should lend itself to help us have a much more efficient process.”

Sweet Liquid

The sugar refining process begins at Louisiana Sugar Refining LLC with receiving sugar from the eight raw mills that are SUGAR members. The raw sugar is then melted down and liquefied and taken through a number of steps to clarify that solution, remove its color and filter it. At that point, the sugar solution is boiled in vertical tube calandria evaporators that the industry calls “pans.”

Sugar crystals are formed during the boiling process and the solution is discharged and fed into centrifuges that separate the crystals from the mother liquor. The liquor then is boiled again and crystals separated from it in a four-stage process. The impurities that stay behind in the liquor end up as molasses. 

“You continue boiling the liquor and removing sugar from the solution until impurities build up to a point where they need to be purged, and that molasses stream is our byproduct,” Bartels explains. “We sell the molasses into various marketplaces for fermentation for different industries and into pet food and cattle food.”

But it is not food-grade molasses for human consumption, which requires further refinement and processing. “There are people that make food-grade molasses – we don’t,” Geurts emphasizes. “That’s not our primary market.” 

The final sugar crystals are dried and conditioned, shipped in bulk rail cars or trucks or packed in 50-pound bags or 1-ton super sacks. Imperial Sugar purchases some of the sugar and puts it in small packages for the retail segment of its marketplace.

Sweet Inspiration

The joint venture came about when Cargill and SUGAR were looking to build a new plant and actually announced plans to build one as a two-way joint venture in the New Orleans-Baton Rouge area. “At that point in time, Imperial asked to be considered, and it became a three-way joint venture,” Geurts relates. “Through that process, it was agreed to build it on this site to leverage some of the infrastructure and synergies of the existing site.” 

Owned by Imperial Sugar, the site originally was called the Colonial Refinery and is on the National Register of Historic Places. “It was one of the few refineries left that still has some semblance of the layout where the company had housing for the workforce on-site. That’s part of why it’s on the historic register. There’s a lot of history here.”

The project was complicated by the change of ownership of the entire site not being completed until Jan. 1. Until that point, Imperial owned most of the site except for those areas where the new construction was taking place, which had been deeded over to the joint venture so new construction could start.

“I think the real thrust of this project to the joint venture was to integrate the grower of sugar cane into the economic structure of the sugar industry,” Geurts maintains. “They were locked out just selling sugar at the raw sugar level and not able to participate in the increased margin opportunity that you get in the white refining industry. Their costs were going up on the farm and their opportunity and margin was being squeezed.

“This allows them to participate further up the economic structure of the sugar industry,” he asserts. “That was really the driver of this project from the start. Cargill wanted access to a supply of sugar to take to the market, and the grower wanted access to that market to participate in the increased margin to offset some of their costs on the farm.” The participants share income from the joint venture three ways.

Subcontractor Success

The timing for hiring subcontractors was fortuitous. “In this particular area of the Gulf Coast at the time we were starting this project, there were a few very large petrochemical projects just finishing,” Bartels reports. “A lot of contractors were coming off those projects hungry for work and looking for ways to keep their folks employed. In terms of the local construction market, it was fairly advantageous timing.”

The number of subcontractors varies from month to month, but Bartels estimates at least 20 to 25 different subcontracted companies have worked on the project so far. 

“We made a concerted effort to hire local Louisiana subcontractors for foundation work, concrete, steel erection – things where a knowledge of the area and of doing work in Louisiana would be a definite benefit,” Bartels points out. “We conducted a nationwide competitive bidding process for other trades such as piping, electrical, and millwrights.” 

Geurts notes that each joint venture partner brought contacts to the project and subcontractors with specific expertise. “So we’ve really leveraged the experience of the three partners,” he points out. “Each of the three partners in our mind bring some significant different perspectives to the project.”

Bartels emphasizes that the subcontractors are crucial members of the construction team. “We don’t succeed if they don’t,” he stresses. “In some cases, we’ve worked with them before. In other cases, it’s a new relationship for the members of the management team. It’s been a good experience so far.”

“They have contributed to our success by being attentive to schedule,” Geurts adds. “We’ve achieved some very competitive bids.”

 “By the end of June, we should have worked 550,000 man-hours with no reportable injuries,” Bartels reports. “Those are ways they’ve really contributed to our success,” Geurts adds. 

The project’s key partners include Felker Brothers Corp., L. King Company LLC, Newell Machinery Co., T.E. Ibberson Co., Weitz Industrial LLC, Safety Management Inc., Dedert Corp., Westcon Inc., Davies Engineering, Cemsan and C-K Associates LLC.

Images

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