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Stabroek News

UTech, Worthy Park to engineer 'smart system' for sugar production
published: Monday | May 29, 2006

Martin Henry, Contributor


HENRY

THE WORTHY Park Estate is collaborating with the School of Engineering at the University of Technology (UTech) to further develop applications for an artificial intelligence system to optimise the yield of sugar in its factory operations.

Worthy Park's engineer, Romaindra Mohabir, has just completed one year of an M.Phil. research programme in electrical engineering. His research is aimed at optimising the crystal-lisation of sugar from cane syrup during the boiling process to minimise losses and increase the yield of crystallised sugar.

The Worthy Park factory engineer-turned UTech graduate re-searcher is working on a 'smart system' to solve the old problem of maximising sucrose yield from boiling cane syrup by 'striking' or starting crystallisation at the right time.

A VIABLE METHOD

Boiling takes place in a series of vacuum pans under reduced air pressure. In a soon-to-be-published research paper, Mohabir describes the 'Application of Artificial Intelligence to Optimise Pan Boiling Controls of Raw Cane Sugar at Worthy Park Estate'. The paper, he says, presents a viable method of optimising sugar yield by using 'neural networks', an artificial intelligence system to monitor pan boiling.

Monitoring the concentration of sucrose in boiling cane liquor used to be done manually by a process of withdrawing and quickly analysing samples in a lab. Even before that, an experienced sugar boiler would visually inspect the boiling cane liquor and decide when to 'strike'. As Mr. Mohabir puts it, sugar boiling was conceived as an art, not an exact science. Other estates still operate at the level of withdrawing samples of the boiling cane liquor and analysing in the lab. Through his research, Mr. Mohabir wants to bring high-level computerised precision to the process, elimi-nating all trial and error, so that sugar yields can be taken to the optimum level and losses brought down to zero.

One of Mr. Mohabir's research supervisors, Dr. Audley Darmand, says the application of artificial intelligence in boiling sugar will not only help to rescue the ailing industry, but can find much wider application in industry. "Sugar is not dead," Dr. Darmand declares.

GOING HI-TECH

What the research aims to do, he explains, is to encode all the knowledge available about the sugar boiling process into a computer neural network, mimicking how the human brain processes information and make decisions. The system can then automatically control the sugar crystallisation process with great precision. Dr. Darmand says he intends to patent the finalised process.

Worthy Park Estate has been producing sugar since 1672, but over the centuries the company has taken steps to move its production high-tech. Technology has become a driving force in the corporate strategy. Factory operations, from cane yard to final crystallisation of sugar, were automated in 2000 and in 2002 a computerised operations system was installed.

Worthy Park Estate, which is located in Lluidas Vale, St. Catherine, has been able to extract as close to 100 per cent of the sucrose content in harvested cane as possible and convert this, with zero loss, into high-grade commercial sugar. Energy and water use have dropped, while sugar output from the same amount of cane has gone up.

The estate management has taken an aggressive stance on innovation, investing in new technology and allowing technical staff to experiment and improve processes. There is a smooth mix and merge of old and new technologies. For example, a 1911 steam-driven vacuum pump still operates alongside a computerised control system acquired in 2002.

At Worthy Park, nothing is wasted. Scarce water, piped down from the surrounding mountains and extracted from estate wells, is conserved and recycled. After being washed several times and mill-dried to recover all cane juice, the finely shredded cane trash, called bagasse, is burnt to drive a state-of-the-art steam turbine which generates 1.4 megawatts of electricity. If bagasse runs short, the estate supplements its fuel with diesel and does not use any electricity from the Jamaica Public Service power grid.

Waste from the production process which emerges as 'cane mud' is taken back to the fields to be used as organic fertiliser. Bagasse is also used as the lining material on the floors of the chicken houses which Worthy Park operates, producing 160,000 birds every seven weeks. Last year, the estate also started a distillery using the best available technology for rum production.

The university is also conducting other research projects relating to the sugar industry, led by dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Computing, Dr. Gossett Oliver. He and his team are focusing on extending the life of mill rollers and the mechanical knives used to cut up and shred the cane stalks for the mills by applying wear-resistant coatings.

Sugar mills now have to be regularly resurfaced and knives sharpened causing significant downtime losses. Minister of Agriculture, Roger Clarke, has expressed strong personal interest in the research work being done on the sugar industry for improved technologies. The ministry and the University of Technology are exploring other opportunities for research collaboration.

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