During the cocktail reception hosted by Mitr Phol at the recent ISSCT congress in Chiang Mai, I had the opportunity to speak with the company’s CEO Krisda Monthienvichienchai. Some ten minutes into the conversation, I was asked what technologies did I forsee impacting sugar industry in the next 20 years. Amidst the clamour of clinking glasses, animated conversations between guests, it was a tough task to offer a cogently informed reply, particularly after two glasses of beer which sapped reflection. The question was deceptively pertinent though – for a progressive business like Mitr Phol, unrelenting in its need to drive success, taking calculated risks to lead rather than follow, seeking new opportunities, new ways of doing things, are certainly par for the course. While I thought what I gave was a reasonable reply at the time, there is a compelling case for Take 2! – bereft of distraction of party atmosphere.
Some of the technologies that come to mind immediately are the following. Progress in energy storage systems will doubtless go a long way in promoting variety of renewable energy technologies from solar farms and wind farms to geothermal and tidal waves. Progress in catalytic science and technology resulting in development of cheap, highly active and environmentally-friendly catalysts, particularly in the production of hydrogen as renewable fuel and exploitation of carbon dioxide in the production of commodity chemicals will be transformative. As will be the advances in biotechnology whereby sugar factories will not only be producing one chemical – sucrose – but also a variety of high value substitute petrochemicals. Against this backdrop is progress in molecular farming offering significant opportunities in the production of biopharmaceuticals – plants as factories producing chemicals in predictable quality. For sugar factory managers, tired of having to shut down plants for periodic cleaning during campaigns will eagerly welcome development of evaporators tubes with hydrophobic surface – mechanical and chemical cleaning dispensed with. On the flip side, developments in material science, in particular, commercial scale production of metallic glass – stronger than steel, as malleable as plastics, conducting electricity and resisting wear plus corrosion – is likely to be a game changer in the manufacture and life-cycle of equipment. Advances in thermoelectric power may probably result in development robust generators that may make cogen units with turbines yesterday’s technology. In agriculture, development of powerful sensors to support decision making along with supporting autonomous vehicles will help drive resource and crop productivity.
My pick of the two transformative developments are quantum computing and photosynthetic efficiency.
One of the greatest challenges facing mankind is that of increasing crop productivity from same area of land as population rises. Scientists have recently reported that they can increase plant productivity by 20% by manipulating light harvesting during photosynthesis. (See the piece on page 28 of this issue.) According to the scientists, it will be 20 years before farmers fully exploit the development.
When the variety of hurdles in quantum computing are overcome in the foreseeable future, its arrival will have far reaching effect which will invariably spill over on to the sugar industry. Quantum computing has the capability to address pressing questions that are presently unsolvable with current technologies. Quantum technologies offer sensors of unprecedented precision and computers that are exponentially more powerful than any supercomputer for a given task. All things being equal, sugar crystallization will no longer be a combination of art and science. Further, with the proliferation of Industrie 4 over the next two decades, availability of precision sensors will doubtless support process control along the value chain that will revolutionise sugar production – controlling input use, reducing waste and supporting significant productivity gains. All this is likely to be underpinned by significant breakthroughs in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). What is particularly exciting and even scary is the progress in AI that is likely to unfold. “The average human brain can juggle seven discrete chunks of information simultaneously; geniuses can sometimes manage nine. Either figure is extraordinary relative to the rest of the animal kingdom, but completely arbitrary as a hard cap on the complexity of thought. If we could sift through 90 concepts at once, or recall trillions of bits of data on command, we could access a whole new order of mental landscapes. It doesn’t look like the brain can be made to handle that kind of cognitive workload, but it might be able to build a machine that could.”1
1 Ross Andersen (2013) Humanity’s deep future