Professors may have alternative to buring sugar cane

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 24, 2000

L’Observateur / November 24, 2000

THIBODAUX – Three professors at Nicholls State University say they have a possible alternative to the annual burning of sugarcane fields that will help both the community and the sugarcane farmers.

Dr. Ramaraj Boopathy, assistant professor of biological sciences at NichollsState, is the principal investigator of a research project that uses a byproduct of the sugarcane industry to eliminate the leaves remaining after the harvest, rather than burning the fields as farmers do now.

“Because the harvest is in the fall, the smoke from burning the fields doesn’t rise quickly into the atmosphere. Instead, it lingers low at ground level,sometimes causing complaints of breathing difficulties, soiling effects on home and vehicles and reduced visibility,” Boopathy said.

But the solution is simple, Boopathy says. He and his biological sciencescolleagues at Nicholls State, assistant professor Dr. Tim Beary andassociate professor Paul Templet, are using a molasses solution to increase the number of microorganisms in the soil of sugarcane fields. Themicroorganisms break down the sugarcane residue left on the fields, like in composting, eliminating the need for burning the fields.

“This process is beneficial to the sugarcane farmers, too. All they have to dois spray the fields one time with a sugar solution of molasses, which is a natural byproduct of the sugarcane industry and is inexpensive. And thedecomposition process fertilizes the soil with an increase in nitrogen and organic matter,” Boopathy said.

The three professors are currently testing the process in a small-scale experiment on the Nicholls State campus. The experiment consists of soilsamples with sugarcane residue. One sample has been sprayed with themolasses solution, one has the molasses solution with a thin layer of soil spread on top and the remaining sample is the control, with no solution of layer of soil on top.

They closely monitor the amounts of organic carbon, bacteria, fungi, soil pH and inorganic ions in the samples. In a 225-day period, the amount of totalorganic carbon in the soil has more than doubled in the sample with molasses and the soil layer.

“So far, we’ve discovered that the residue decomposes faster if a thin layer of soil is placed on top of the molasses spray. This experiment is based on aone-year crop. It takes about eight to nine months for significantdecomposition to occur, which is the time between sugarcane harvest seasons,” Boopathy said.

The professors began the experiment in August of 1999 without any funding.

In September of this year the group was awarded a $4,300 grant from the Nicholls State University Research Council to continue their research.

Boopathy is planning to apply for further grants from the U.S. Departmentof Agriculture and the National Institute for Health.

After the one-year laboratory experiment is finished in August 2001, the professors plan to move the experiment to an actual sugarcane field, showing the local farmers how the process works.

“It’s very practical. The only extra cost to farmers is putting the layer ofsoil on top for faster decomposition. That’s why we chose molasses for thesugar solution. It’s a natural byproduct that won’t cost the farmers,”Boopathy said.

Currently, open-air burning is still practiced by many farmers. Boopathysuggested that the composting process can initially be applied in sensitive areas, such as those near schools and hospitals.

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