Wissington - beet factory of many parts

One of the world's largest beet sugar factories, Wissington, is producing a surprising range of food and industrial products based on processing Norfolk's cornerstone crop.

One of the world's largest beet sugar factories, Wissington, is producing a surprising range of food and industrial products based on processing Norfolk's cornerstone crop.

The sugar factory is the most efficient producer in Europe and in terms of total annual slice leads the world, according to Karl Carter, development director.

And the country's first bioethanol plant, which produces about 1.5m litres of 99.6pc pure ethanol each week, was officially opened by Defra's food and farming minister, Lord Jeff Rooker.

It will use take about 116,000 tonnes of sugar, refined at the adjoining sugar factory from about 800,000 tonnes of beet.

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Mr Carter told an invited audience of 300 leaders including George Weston, who is the chief executive of the parent company, Associated British Foods, that the Wissington processes about three million tonnes of beet and refines 400,000 tonnes of sugar each year.

The sugar beet is grown by about 1,500 farmers and delivered to the factory, which dates from 1925. It is all sourced from a 50-mile radius of the factory, on the edge of the fens near Downham Market.

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Mr Carter also said that Wissington also generates about 50MW of electricity from North Sea gas through the factory's combined heat and power plant.

This operates at about 85pc thermal efficiency compared with the standard 35pc of a traditional coal-fired power station.

The power plant, which supplies the national grid, provides enough power to heat 120,000 homes as well as produces steam for the factory.

Mr Carter also surprised many in the audience by revealing that about 20,000 tonnes of washed stone was also sold each year and a further 100,000 tonnes of stone-free topsoil was also marketed.

Although growers have made strenuous efforts over the years to reduce dirt tares - the amount of soil delivered with the harvested roots - there is always some residue, he said.

And the Wissington factory was also the country's biggest producer of animal feed during the annual processing campaign.

Around 150,000 tonnes of dried beet pulp, the residue of the process of extracting all the sugars, was sold in pelleted form, with some added molasses to enhance digestibility.

Another key part of the the sugar extraction process involved the use of large volumes of lime, which produced another by-product, LimeEX70 - this figure describing the dry matter content of the material spread on fields by farmers to improve the soil's fertility.

So the Wissington factory was not just a sugar factory pure and simple but also made the optimum use of all the energy and materials in the process.

British Sugar has just completed a further investment in a packaging plant but most of the sugar produced throughout the year were despatched in 24t or 26t loads in bulk.

Mr Carter said that Wissington was also a world leader in the production of natural betaine.

About 6,000 tonnes a year is extracted from sugar beet, which is then used in products as diverse as fish feed because it improves the appeal of diets.

"And, anyone who washes their hair might not appreciate another use - it is added to shampoo and makes your hair shiny," he added.

And, on another part of the site, some of the heat is recycled yet again to England's largest tomato complex, Cornerways. This now extends to 11ha and will produce between 70m and 100m tomatoes each year involving a range of 20 types.

Siting a glasshouse nearby complex has further advantages because the plants can make maximum use of carbon dioxide from the energy generation operation and also use warm water too.

Mr Carter said that the latest batch of tomatoes have just been planted and the glasshouse complex is able to operate 50 weeks of the year. The first fruit is expected in late spring.

The bioethanol plant, which also operates throughout the year, 24 hours a day, has a total of 25 staff.

The building work started in January 2006 and was commissioned in early September. Within a fortnight, it was was fully operational and the first batch was delivered on September 24.

The first batch of UK-produced bioethanol to power the nation's vehicles was delivered just as the latest annual beet campaign got into full swing at Wissington, where 300 staff process about a quarter of the country's home-grown sugar crop.

As the UK's first UK bioethanol fuel plant, it received the award for Best New Project in 2007 from the Renewable Energy Association.

It takes sugar, which under EU rules was formerly sold on the world market without subsidies, and converts it in bioethanol.

British Sugar is also building a £200m world-scale plant at Saltend, Hull, with BP to produce 420m litres of bioethanol from UK-grown wheat. It will come on stream in late 2009.

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