Some Chemical and More-Than-Human Transformations of Sugar/Energy

Posted by on Sep 26, 2017
Some Chemical and More-Than-Human Transformations of Sugar/Energy

Oblivious, or maybe not, to a warming planet and intense global discourse around renewable bioeconomy futures, a tiny sugar molecule one day is synthesized and then makes its way into a cell wall of a sugarcane plant in the southern region of Brazil. This is not the type of sugar that would be found on the kitchen table. The molecule remains there for the life of the plant, offering fibrous structural support for the towering stalks as they grow up to five meters tall. This sugar compound is called cellulose and is found in all plants and several types of microbes. It is the earth’s most abundant biopolymer made on land and its largest carbon reservoir (Li et al. 2014). While not on the kitchen table per se, cellulose is likely in it (if the table is wooden).

On a later day, a machine smashes through the sugarcane field to harvest the stalks. The sugarcane plantation’s infamous and violent history, one of colonial slavery and later continuing horrific worker conditions, is not forgotten by nor has disappeared for nearby residents, even as mechanized harvesting changes the local labor metabolism (Mintz 1985; Scheper-Hughes 1992). The harvested sugarcane stalks are transported to a processing facility not too far away, which is owned by a joint venture between Brazilian and US companies.

At the facility, the stalks are crushed, squeezed, and subjected to chemical and physical pretreatments that begin to degrade the recalcitrant, fibrous portions of the plant. Researchers next inject a cocktail of fungal enzymes, themselves harvested from bacterial cell factories, to experiment with methods to break down cellulose and its relatives into simple, fermentable sugars. Then, yet another organism enters the story: kilograms of yeast are dumped into the vats of digested sugarcane pulp. Over the course of only a few days, as in the process of making beer or wine, the yeast consumes simple sugars and expel liters of alcohol and carbon dioxide gas in return. The mixture is hot and lively, as the release of gas exerts enough energy to agitate and stir the contents, some two kilowatts (Raghavendran et al. 2017). The ethanol produced by the yeast is then collected and later pumped into the tank of a flex-fuel car, a vehicle that can run on gasoline, ethanol, or a combination of the two.

Laboratory (photograph by Katie Ulrich).

Taking this process, what would it mean to think closer with the conversions of energy—the changing materialities of the chemical compound of sugar—looping between the multiple beings, and states of being, involved? Sugarcane is used as a feedstock, an energy source, to generate other forms of energy, not for the plant but for certain humans. And to be more precise, it serves as an energy source for another type of being, microbial yeast, before it reaches the humans. Of course, too, sugar in another form fueled the cells of the workers who helped harvest the sugarcane in the first place. What such sugarcane-yeast-bacteria-fungus-human-machine entanglements make clear to me is that a more-than-human, multichemical ethnography can be helpful for opening up thinking on energy—its forms and transformations.

That is, I believe it is worth tracing transformations of energy across various scales and materials, in ways that matter not only to humans but to the other beings wrapped up in these processes as well. Paying attention to energy on these different registers—energy at what scale, and for whom—can be productive for exploring when energy comes to be energy, and the kinds of relations of use figured in these moments.

Considering energy as it emerges from cascading relations between both beings and states of being is obviously not limited to renewable fuels; after all, fossil fuels were once living and have undergone their own fascinating material and temporal transformations. Additionally, I think this approach can be especially helpful for an anthropology of emerging sugarcane biotechnologies in Brazil.

Ethanol made from sugarcane molasses (not the cellulosic material as described above, although the molasses process still involves yeast fermentation) has been produced at a large scale since the 1970s in the country. This biofuel has propelled not only cars but also industrial discourses around Brazil as a global leader for renewable energy.

More recently, though with advanced genetic engineering methods, research centers and biotechnology companies are aiming to engineer the very metabolism of the yeast, often with genes from other species, to produce not ethanol but your chemical of choice. Such chemicals have included drug compounds, specialty chemicals used in cosmetics and flavorings, and industrial chemicals otherwise derived from petroleum. Millions of dollars in funding from both public and private sources have been put toward such sugar biotechnologies in the past decade, in Brazil as well as abroad.

The sugarcane plant, too, is not simply a static feedstock. Becoming more widely used is a variety of sugarcane called energy cane, which has been bred to have a higher proportion of fibrous material such as cellulose and less sucrose, the more familiar kind of sugar. Energy cane is desirable, as it has a greater overall biomass than standard sugarcane, extra biomass that can be used to produce extra ethanol or extra specialty chemicals. Energy cane can only generate more total biomass, though, because of its reduced synthesis of sucrose—which for the plant is energetically expensive. Energy thus becomes relevant for energy cane in more way than one.

Sugarcane (photograph by Katie Ulrich).

In short, sugar, not always in familiar forms, is being advanced as a feedstock for a renewable future. This future is renewable in terms of not only fuels but also the innumerable, ubiquitous commodities currently linked to fossil fuels in more invisible ways. In such future imaginaries, sugar feedstocks form the basis of a new mode of industry, one that entangles multiple (engineered) organisms, labs, and various forms of energy in new chemical and biological relations. Sugar literally energizes this future, both now and then, and in the process reconfigures energy as well as these organisms. And as Sidney Mintz (1985) was attentive to in another moment of sugar transformations, such reconfigurations are never innocent nor even; energy is extracted from someone or something in many conversions into another form.

Ultimately, this is all to propose that in conversation with the rich anthropological work on energy and its politics, social and global relations, and political economies, paying attention as well to the more-than-human, multichemical aspects of something like emerging sugarcane biotechnologies can help expand thinking on what, when, and for whom something becomes energy (and for whom not). From cellulose in cane plants and the people who harvest them, to simple sugars fermented by yeast, to ethanol and specialty chemicals consumed by other people, returning to the naïve question of “What is energy?” could help make clear productive ways of studying new energy regimes of the twenty-first century.


Li, Shundai, Logan Bashline, Lei Lei, and Ying Gu. 2014. “Cellulose Synthesis and Its Regulation.” Arabidopsis Book 12: e0169. doi:10.1199/tab.0169.

Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.

Raghavendran, Vijayendran, Thalita Peixoto Basso, Juliana Bueno da Silva, Luiz Carlos Basso, and Andreas Karoly Gombert. 2017. “A Simple Scaled Down System to Mimic the Industrial Production of First Generation Fuel Ethanol in Brazil.” Antonie van Leeuwenhoek 110 (7): 971–983. doi:10.1007/s10482-017-0868-9.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1992. Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Katie Ulrich is a CENHS pre-doctoral fellow and Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University. She did preliminary fieldwork in São Paulo, Brazil this summer on the science of sugar and sugarcane.


[Note: This was originally published on EnviroSociety.]

Cite asUlrich, Katie. 2017. “Some Chemical and More-Than-Human Transformations of Sugar/Energy.” EnviroSociety, 21 June.