Welcome to the History of Michigan's Beet Sugar Industry where you will discover the detailed history of many of the sugar companies that once dotted Michigan's landscape and of those that continue to add value to Michigan's economy. Much of the credit for what became one of Michigan's enduring industries is owed to Thomas Cranage who formed Michigan Sugar Company in 1898. Read his story and others in this blog.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Profiles in Chemistry - 19th Century Inventions that Advanced the Beet Sugar Industry

Those of us who enjoy an abundance of relatively cheap refined granulated sugar and those who spend their workdays growing sugarbeets or having a role in manufacturing refined sugar from them owe thanks to the men and women who through a combination of genius and hard work developed methods and equipment that turned a commodity considered a luxury by the ancients into a product given away freely in modern restaurants or purchased for pennies a pound in every grocery store in the land. Here are highlights of the inventions of three such persons who dedicated their talents to the expansion of the sugar industry during the 19th century.
Chief among those developments was the polariscope invented in 1835 by the French physicist Jean-Baptiste Biot who was born in Paris, France on April 21, 1774 and died in Paris on February 3, 1862. Jean-Baptiste Biot made many contributions to the scientific community in his lifetime, including the fields of optics, magnetism, and astronomy. In 1812, Biot turned his attention to the study of optics, particularly the polarization of light which eventually led to the development of the polariscope, a device that presents an easy and accurate method of measuring the amount of sugar in beets. Having a means of learning which beets held the highest percentage of sugar allowed the selection of beets bearing high sugar concentrations as seed beets. Once the original crop of high sugar content beets was harvested, the polariscope was used again to select for the next planting those beets with the highest sugar content and so on for generation after generation. It was in this manner that sugar content rose from about six per cent in successive steps to fourteen, sixteen, and eventually eighteen percent. While it was the polariscope that substantially increased production capacity, other technical advances were also critical to reducing the unit cost of sugar. Included among such refinements was the development of the vacuum pan and the triple-effect evaporator.
An Englishman, Edward Charles Howard (1874-1816), patented the vacuum pan in 1813, thus bringing sugar crystallization via evaporation to a high level of efficiency. Howard's early death at the age of forty-two can only cause wonder at what he may have accomplished had he lived longer. He made important discoveries in three areas of chemical research, each of lasting effect. He discovered mercury fulminates, the single most useful compound used in blasting caps, and then the characteristic nickel content of meteorites which serves to establish their origin as from outer space. He capped his short-lived career with an invention that revolutionized sugar manufacturing – vacuum evaporation. Before Howard's invention, the process involved boiling syrup in open pans where the temperature was much higher than required in a closed atmosphere. Under those conditions, it was difficult to regulate the heat to an even degree. The result was considerable waste caused by caramelization, slowness of operation, worker safety because of the required proximity to open pans of boiling sugar syrup and the cost of excessive amounts of fuel needed to maintain desired temperatures. Howard employed the principle that fluid will boil in a partial vacuum at a much lower temperature than it will in an open vessel. Thus he designed a closed copper vessel the middle of which was cylindrical. He gave the top and the bottom of the device a spherical form and a double bottom that admitted steam. It was thus that an operator could raise or lower the temperature of a pan's contents. To aid in evaporation, Howard added a coil of copper piping that carried steam at high pressure throughout the body of the vessel. The combination of low pressure which permitted boiling at lower temperatures and high pressure which delivered great heat to aid in evaporation provided an ideal solution to a number of problems that had until then slowed the progress of the industry. Controlled temperatures and lowered boiling temperatures reduced cost while at the same time providing faster through put and increased worker safety and losses of sugar through caramelization, a common hazard of open pan boiling.
Twenty-one years after Howard's revolutionary invention, in 1834, Norbert Rillieux of New Orleans, educated in Paris, installed the first triple-effect evaporator. The methods then in use required workers to ladle boiling cane juice from one scalding kettle to another. The work frequently resulted in severe injury. Rillieux designed an evaporating pan which enclosed a series of condensing coils in vacuum chambers, issued as patent U.S. 4,879. Rillieux's invention removed hand labor from the refining process and saved fuel because the juice boiled at lower temperatures. An added marketing benefit was the production of constancy in product quality. However, it was not until 1843 that his multiple-effect evaporation process proved successful. In that same year, a French derivative of a centrifugal invented for the textile industry ended the primitive drainage system for removing sugar crystals from the mother liquor by perfecting the first centrifuge suitable for sugar extraction. These inventions and others enabled substantial expansions in beet sugar production during the nineteenth century while at the same raising the quality of the final product.
Beet sugar production in the five major sugar producing countries, Germany, Austria/Hungary, Russia, France, and Belgium would expand thirty-one times between 1850 and 1900, growing from 155 thousand tons in 1850 to more than 4.8 million in 1900, the year in which the combined countries marketed 98.5 percent of the world production of beet sugar.
In the United States, Henry Vallez, variously described as a chemist, factory operator, engineer, and scientist, created a process he patented under the style, Triple Osmosis, that recovered about twenty-seven percent of the sugar lost to molasses. He installed the first one in a beet sugar factory in Lehi, Utah in 1898 and would eventually install it in twenty-one beet sugar factories in the United States, one of which was at the Monitor Sugar factory, then operating under the name, German-American Sugar Company. In 1932 he turned his attention to the Zeolite process, also known as ion-exchange, an idea developed in the German beet sugar industry and taken under study in California as early as 1912. Vallez undertook his research of Zeolite at the Isabella Sugar Company located in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Ten years later, after applying himself with relentless zealousness, he produced satisfactory results and proceeded to manufacture salable white sugar in commercial quantities, just in time to aid the U.S. war effort. Manufacturing cost, however, proved prohibitive causing the delay of further serious investigation of molasses desugarization technology for nearly sixty years pending the development of a method that achieved the same result without the aid of costly resins – a method referred to as ion-exclusion chromatography.
In addition to his accomplishments in the field of molasses desugarization, Vallez also invented a paper pulp filtering system, a rotating leaf-filter, and while he did not invent the pulp dryer, he was the first to introduce the device into the United States and he was the first to employ the use of paper bags for sugar the purpose of which was to overcome objections to the presence of burlap in sugar.

ANNALS OF SCIENCE, Volume 56, Issue 22 April 1999, pages 113 – 141, The Life and Work of Edward Charles Howard FRS, by Frederick Kurzer
FRANKEL, Eugene, Corpuscular Optics and the Wave Theory of Light: The Science and Politics of Revolution in Physics. Social Studies of Science vol. 6, no 2. May 1976. Sage Publications, Ltd. 15 June 2009
GREAT WESTERN SUGAR COMPANY, The Technology of Beet Sugar Manufacture, The Great Western Sugar Company, Denver, Colorado, June 30, 1920 – an instruction manual prepared largely by D. J. Roach for use by the operating employees of the company's beet sugar factories.
GUTLEBEN, Dan, The Sugar Tramp-1954- Michigan, Printed by: Bay City Duplicating Co, San Francisco, 1954, specifically pages 129 and 254.
WALKER, William (1864). Memoirs of the Distinguished Men of Science of Great Britain in the years 1807-1808, London: E. & F. N. Spon. pp. 63 – 64.

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