Yunnan province is the centre of flue-cured tobacco production in China. The region accounts for a hefty swathe of total world tonnage of flue-cured tobacco – as much as 20 per cent, according to tobacco authorities in the province. Researchers at YATAS have developed and now also tested a new generation of flue-curing barns together with Yunnan tobacco growers. According to YATAS researchers, the first trials have been a success.
Work began when YATAS sought to address the disadvantages of current barns promoted by Yunnan Tobacco Company. “There is difficulty in operating the current technology accurately. It requires intensive and time-consuming labour management,” YATAS scientist Congming Zou told TJI. The low energy-efficiency and non-sustainable nature of burning coal as a fuel source for curing were two of the things that Congming and his fellow researchers wanted to address.
According to YATAS, the new barn technology uses an electric power-driven compressor. Coal-fired heating equipment of traditional barns is replaced by a power-driven heat pump. The heat pump offers the advantage of being able to “strictly adjust” the temperature in the barn to suit the curing practice and has the potential to substantially cut or even eliminate the carbon footprint of the curing process. Currently, YATAS is developing the barns for farmers in Yunnan province, where natural energy supplies are abundant. Powering the barns with solar energy is an option, too, should they be marketed in other growing regions such as Zimbabwe and Indonesia in the future, Zou said.
YATAS told TJI that the barns incorporate three major functions for “intelligent curing”. The barns are equipped with an anti-fog observation window which allows the curing process to be viewed from different angles while an automatic systems interface displays real-time recording of temperature and humidity. The barns also feature a remote control system which incorporates Industry 4.0 standards of remote monitoring of dynamic data on PCs or mobile devices. “These three features effectively improve the quality of tobacco leaves,” YATAS stated in an overview of the trials.
Trials of the new barns were conducted until mid-August 2016 with YATSA recording “generally stable performance, good quality and appealing appearance” and savings of around 20 per cent of labour costs. Based on the tests, researchers will now work to further improve hardware configuration of the curing barns based on the chemical composition of the flue-cured tobacco leaves. “At the same time, we are developing warning detection systems to identify potential failures of curing and exploring optimal curing technology for leaves of different species, parts and quality. These practices would pave the way for automation and intelligent design for the modern curing barn,” YATAS said. YATAS’ ultimate aim for the technology is to develop a curing barn with digital curing curves that make use of precise temperature and humidity control to replace coal and reduce labour costs.
The barns being trialled are made out of polyurethane and sized at 1.7/1.3/2.2 metres (length/width/height). YATSA envisages two sizes for production: 2.7/8/3.5 metres as a standard size and 2.7/6/2.8 metres for smallholder farmers. Following the successful trials, the next steps will be to conduct further research into structural design, including size and framing materials; further research into energy savings and the removal of moisture; and further development of intelligent functions such as the use of mobile apps and data security issues.
YATAS is currently working together with China Southern Power Grid, Chuxiong Tobacco Company and tobacco barn companies to initiate substantial new research in the field of tobacco barns for the coming years.