Citrosuco's juice plant in Brazil

At Citrosuco’s factory in Mattão, Brazil, 100,000 oranges are processed every minute. At that speed they need processes that keep running at peak performance.

DATE 2023-11-28 AUTHOR Jonathan Wheatley

There are parts of Brazil that few tourists ever get to see. Far away from the tropical beaches and rainforests are the vast hinterlands of the interior. In much of the country’s north and northeast, these are arid semi-deserts, tough and inhospitable. But in the south and southeast, Brazil’s interior contains some of the most fertile farmlands on the planet.

”It’s a mixture of soil and climate,” says Sérgio Moretti, production manager at Citrosuco, one of the world’s biggest producers of concentrated and fresh orange juice. “It’s that deep red earth, and plenty of sun all year round, plus a little bit of cold in the winter.”

Citrosuco is based in Mattão, about four hours’ drive north of São Paulo city. This is orange grove and sugarcane country. Further south and east, the same vein of rich soil is used for a wider variety of crops such as soy and corn. Where the altitude permits, especially further to the west, the main crop is coffee.

It’s an amazingly productive area, that has enough orange trees to make the state of São Paulo the world’s biggest producer of both oranges and orange juice, with about 40% of global production. The state of Florida in the southern United States comes second with about 30%, and the rest is shared between smaller producing countries.

100,000 oranges a minute

Some of the groves around Mattão belong to Citrosuco. The company produces about one quarter of the oranges it uses, on farms covering more than a million hectares. It buys the rest from independent growers. At its two factories – one in Mattão, the other in Limeira, about an hour and a half’s drive away – Citrosuco’s juice extractors process 100,000 oranges per minute. That’s enough to make about two thousand tons of finished products each and every working day.

If you’re able to form a mental picture of that many oranges and that much orange juice, it should come as no surprise to learn that Citrosuco’s factory in Mattão is the biggest of its kind in the world.

Sérgio Moretti is in charge of both factories, overseeing production processes, maintenance, efficiency, quality, costs and all the data and day-to-day details. About one hundred people work at the Limeira factory and 300 at Mattão, which is where we went to see him on a crisp and sunny winter’s morning.

The Mattão factory dominates the small town. Seen from the outside, the factory looks more like a small oil refinery. Evaporation towers and other mysterious-looking volumes are linked by mile upon mile of piping, all stainless steel, glinting in the sun. The company started in 1963 as a family business trading in fresh fruit. It later went into water-borne transport, but for years now has focused on and invested heavily in orange juice.

Focus on export

Very little of that juice goes to the local market due to the easy access to fresh fruit throughout the country and the fact that “carton orange juice” is an expensive product by the standards of the Brazilian market. “Instead of buying ready-to-drink juice, most Brazilians buy fresh oranges cheaply by the dozen and squeeze them at home. Walk into any corner bar and ask for an orange juice, and it will be squeezed to order”, says Sérgio Moretti.

The export market is what matters to Citrosuco. It sells almost all of its output overseas, currently exporting to markets in 40 different countries worldwide. Long-established markets such as those in European countries have come close to saturation point in recent years and Citrosuco, along with its competitors, is working to open new markets in Asia and other regions. The market of the moment is China. Brazilian are especially strong in China, making up two thirds of what is now the world’s fastest growing market.

It’s a business where companies have to keep innovating if they want to keep growing. Producing orange juice may sound like the sort of activity that doesn’t change much down the years, but in fact customer demands change rapidly. As a consequence, Citrosuco must invest to keep ahead of the competition.

Customized production

The basic extraction process is quite simple. Oranges are fed into machines five at a time, then pierced from below and pressed to extract the juice. This takes just one second. (There are 180 machines at Mattão.) From these extractors, the juice goes into centrifuges, where pulp and any other particles are extracted. From there, the juice goes into evaporating towers, where its volume is reduced to produce the concentrate that makes up the majority of Citrosuco’s sales.

This, of course, is a crude outline, and there are many variants depending on customers’ demands. Citrosuco recently began supplying Tropicana, the world’s biggest brand of “fresh” orange juice, for which it produces unconcentrated juice. Instead of going to the evaporating towers, the juice is pasteurised and kept aseptically until it reaches consumers around the world.

“We’re always looking for new products, and we’re in constant contact with customers to try to develop something new, to find a new solution to their needs,” says Sérgio. One recent example involved working closely with Alfa Laval to modify the characteristics of a solid orange juice concentrate used in the soft drinks industry. This concentrate is extracted from the pulp and other material taken from the juice by the centrifuges. “The juice extracted at this stage has a high level of limonin, which gives it a bitter taste,” Sérgio explains. Using ultrafiltration technology developed at Alfa Laval, Citrosuco was able to remove the bitterness from the concentrate and provide the right product for its customers.

All down the production chain there are by-products. The pulp and other solid residues are turned into pellets, which are then used in making cattle feed. Another by-product of the pressing stage is orange oil, contained in orange peel. This is extracted in centrifuges and sold overseas to flavour houses for use in the food and cosmetics industries. Orange essence is also extracted at the evaporation stage, for use in food and drinks.

As Sérgio talks, it becomes clear that his is a deeply involving job. “I really like the large variation of activities,” he says. “The basic process is oranges in, orange juice out, but things change every day. The quality and type of oranges are always changing, which means constant changes in technology, and new processes coming along. There’s a new challenge every day.”

Fruitful cooperation

The relationship between Alfa Laval and Citrosuco began when Alfa Laval bought Danish Separation Systems in 2002.

 In 1996, the company had supplied Citrosuco with an ultrafiltration plant for orange juice clarification after extraction.

Recent changes to the extraction process meant that the juice passing through the filters had a higher concentration of peel oil than before.

The oil in the finished concentrate had to be kept to a minimum to meet the needs of Citrosuco’s customers; soft drink manufacturers in this case. In addition, peel oil is very aggressive to most polymers. As a result, the support plates of the ultrafiltration plant deteriorated, causing leaks and product losses.

“The oil was basically destroying part of our equipment,” says Sérgio Moretti, Citrosuco’s production manager. “The ultrafiltration membranes were still OK, but the oil was breaking down the support plates.”

These are massive machines. The membranes on their support plates sit in long rows and the juice is forced through them down steel tubes. After that, a resin on the membrane attracts the orange oil and removes it from the juice.

When the support plates began to corrode, Citrosuco had to make a decision. It could replace the entire ultrafiltration plant, buying a new system from another manufacturer using highly resistant ceramic plates; or it could stick with Alfa Laval, and work together to produce new support plates in a sufficiently resistant material.

“Alfa Laval’s people came over and worked with our people on a series of tests and experiments,” Sérgio says. Between them, Alfa Laval’s and Citrosuco’s engineers developed support plates in a material able to resist the oil-rich juice. Alfa Laval has now upgraded all 16 modules at Citrosuco, with a total membrane area of 840 square meters.

The success of the project led Citrosuco and Alfa Laval to sign a five-year service agreement to keep the machines running at peak performance. Under the agreement, Alfa Laval will provide regular service visits, give advice on optimizing the filtration process and undertake training of Citrosuco personnel. The deal also includes lead-time guarantees on maintenance. “The plant is working much better,” Sérgio says. “This is the kind of relationship we like to build, based on the needs of our customers."