LOVELL, Wyo. - In a process that began at the Lovell sugar factory nearly 100 years ago, sugar beets grown in the Big Horn Basin are sliced, heated and treated to extract and refine one of the beets' approximately 2,000 chemicals: sugar.
While the process remains virtually the same, it has been automated and modernized, making it possible to process much more sugar in a day, said Rich Olson, chemist at the factory.
Sugar makes up about 17 percent of beets going into the Western Sugar Co. factory, which was built in 1916, he said.
Olson told a group of people on a recent tour that every acre of beets harvested this year will produce about 28 tons of sugar beets, and a ton of beets will yield approximately 285 pounds of sugar.
The process to remove that sugar continues around the clock from the time the harvest begins until all the beets have been processed.
"For every day a ton of beets sits in a pile, it can lose up to 1/2 pound of sugar," he said.
That's because a beet uses some of its store of sugar to stay alive after it is dug, Olson said.
The factory processes about 900,000 pounds of sugar beets per day in batches of 60,000 pounds. Each batch would fill an average-sized bedroom, according to a fact sheet provided prior to the tour.
To keep the process going, four truckloads of beets are dumped into a flume outside of the factory every hour - or 100 truckloads in a day.
Water carries the beets through a chute, washing them as it tosses and turns them, eventually delivering them to a slicer inside the factory. There, beets are sliced into strips called cosettes, which resemble shoestring french fries.
"We slice around 2,000 beets every minute of every hour of every day for over one-third of the year," Olson said.
The cosettes then go into a diffuser, where they are mixed with hot water and heated. The shape of the cosettes allow for the maximum surface contact with the hot water, allowing sugar in the beet to dissolve into the water.
The water then comes out looking something like dirty dishwater, containing sugar and impurities, Olson said.
The pulp from the sugar beets is carried to processor where it is evaporated and formed into pellets for livestock feed.
Limestone is added to the liquid to remove the impurities. Because limestone is high in pH, it removes lower pH ingredients. It also serves as a filtering agent; as the liquid goes through, impurities stick on particles of lime.
After going through the purification process, the liquid is thin and is a clear, bright golden color. It goes through five evaporators similar to giant pressure cookers.
"We start with 800 gallons per minute, and finish with about 200 gallons per minute," Olson said.
The liquid then is a molasses, which goes into a crystalizer, where small sugar crystals are added to start the crystallization process.
Once that process is complete, the brown, crystalized mixture go into machines that use centrifugal force to spin excess moisture out, similar to the spin cycle on a washing machine. That leaves behind pure, white sugar crystals that still are slightly damp.
From there, the sugar goes into a dryer where it spills as it tumble-dries into individual crystals. The finished sugar then is stored in large industrial-sized, plastic-lined boxes or loaded into railroad cars with food-grade liners to be delivered to commercial food companies.
All sugar processed at the factory goes to commercial food companies; none is bagged for purchase by retail consumers, Olson said.
During each sugar-processing season, or campaign, the factory produces nearly enough sugar to fill the factory's four storage towers three times. Each measures 35 feet in diameter and is 165 feet tall. Combined, they hold about 30 million pounds of sugar - enough for 500 million Snickers bars or 500 million cans of pop, he said.
"If it was all loaded up into trucks at once, it would fill almost 1,200 semi-trailer trucks, and if you lined those trucks up end to end, the line would stretch 15 miles," he said.