Automated Syrup System Is Sweet Sweet Madness

Here at Hackaday we are big fans of the TV show, “How It’s Made”. It’s not much of a stretch to assume that, as somebody who is currently reading this site, you’ve probably seen it yourself. While it’s always interesting to see the behind the scenes process to create everyday products, one of the most fascinating aspects of the show is seeing how hard it is to make things. Seriously, it’s enough to make you wonder how companies are turning a profit on some of these products when you see just how much technology and manual work is required to produce them.

That’s precisely the feeling we got when browsing through this absolutely incredible overview of how [HDC3] makes his maple syrup. If that’s not a sentence you ever thought you’d see on Hackaday, you aren’t alone. But this isn’t a rusty old pail hanging off of a tap, this is a high-tech automated system that’s capable of draining 100’s of gallons of sap from whole groves of trees. We’ll never look at a bottle of syrup in the store the same away again.

It all starts with hundreds of tiny taps that are drilled into the trees and connected to a network of flexible hoses. The plumbing arrangement is so complex that, in certain, areas high tension support wires are necessary to hold up the weight of the hoses and their sweet contents. The main hose leads to an Arduino-powered collection station which maintains a 100 kPa (29 inHg) vacuum throughout the entire system.

The sap is temporarily held in a 250 gallon container, but at this point it’s still just that: sap. It needs to be refined into something suitable for putting on your pancakes. The first step of that process utilizes a reverse osmosis filtration system to pull the water out of the sap and increase its sugar concentration. [HDC3] says the filtration system is built from eBay scores and parts from the home improvement store, and it certainly looks the part of something that would be under a kitchen sink. This system is able to increase the sugar concentration of the sap from around 2% as it comes out of the trees to 8%. But it’s still a far way off from being ready to use.

Interestingly enough, the last steps of the process are about as old-school as they come. The semi-concentrated sap is placed in a long low metal pan, and heated over a wood fire to drive off more of the water. This process continues until the sap is roughly 60% sugar, at which point it is filtered and moved into the house to finish boiling on the stove.

All told, the syrup is boiled for eight hours to bring its sugar content up to 66%. Even with the improvements [HDC3] has made to the system, he reveals that all this hard work only results in slightly more than a half-gallon of final syrup. Talk about dedication.

It probably comes as no surprise that this is the first time Hackaday has ever run a story about producing maple syrup. However we’ve seen a number of automated beer brewing systems that seem to have been tackled with similar zeal. There’s probably a conclusion to be drawn there about the average hacker’s diet, but that’s a bit outside our wheelhouse.

[via /r/DIY]

33 thoughts on “Automated Syrup System Is Sweet Sweet Madness

        1. Sometimes you have to make an effort to care less about something, and doing so shows the world that whatever you’re trying not to care about is more important to you than something you care trivially about.

    1. He didn’t invent it. This is the way it is done by all maple syrup producers nowadays, except for small ones. Here in Quebec we are first producer of maple syrup and are well aware of those systems.

    1. 66*0.5/2 = 16.5 gallons start volume. I’ve heard some places go as high as a 40:1 sap:syrup concentration. But I’m sure that depends on initial sugar concentration of the sap and species of maple used.

      1. Yeah, I am thinking something like the sap from peach trees, or pine trees. Most will run a couple inches then start solidifying. If maple is different, then his way is interesting, even it somehow seems cumbersome. to have a forest criss-crossed with tubes…

        1. If the pine sap hardening is in response to oxygen, though, wouldn’t that be preventbale with air-tight tubing? Though that’d obvously be even more of a hassle to set up.

        2. Peach trees (actually all trees in the genus Prunus, including cherries and almonds) produce a particularly thick and gummy sap (see when injured, since it’s for the purpose of closing wounds. With a pine tree, what you’re seeing is actually resin, not sap – it’s composed mainly of terpenes, rather than water.

          Maple sap, on the other hand, is xylem sap – basically the “blood” that transfers food produced in the roots to other parts of the plant. It’s much thinner than the peach gum or pine resin, so it would take much longer to harden. This tube business seems pretty common, so hardening is probably not a problem.

  1. This is very commonly done in the food industry to concentrate products and reduce the energy cost for final water/solvent removal. These run at much higher pressures (and can concentrate to a higher degree) but require very expensive parts and very high pressure pumps to operate efficiently. The post (and the link below) are very clever in getting everyday parts to do a good job by rethinking the “get stuff out of tap water” into “get the water out of stuff” idea.

    After getting involved in the discussion over this on the original Reddit post, one of the commentors sent the following tutorial on how to put together a RO concentrator out of over-the-counter water purifying parts that seems to be the basis for this and other projects of its type. It’s worth having a spin through this (and perhaps a link in the above article) as it’s pretty complete.

    1. It’s also useful to remember that the concentration was only from ~2% to about ~8% carbohydrates – it’s not like pure syrup comes dripping out of the faucet at the end of this. There’s still a boil-off that has to be done.

      1. While it is true that there is lots of boiling that needs to happen after, the RO system saves an incredible amount of energy in this process. Considering that with a 2% concentration, it take 40l to make 1l, meaning you need to boil off a full 39l. If you can then take your concentration from 2% increase it 4x, to 8%, you now only need 10l to make 1l of syrup – so you only need to boil off 9 liters.
        So while 2% and 8% sound like pretty small numbers, if you ever contemplate the need to boil off 39l vs 9l of water it completely changes the perspective.

        1. Considering he is only getting a 1/2 gallon of syrup then he is starting with 20 gallons of maple water (what we call the sap).
          Is the system and to this point, the $60 reverse osmosis filter, worth the extra $? I think the fallen limbs from the trees he is tapping would be a better use. It is an interesting use of the RO membrane. For a larger op it would be worthwhile.

  2. If I remember correctly I believe the numbers from long ago were ~32 gal sap was boiled down to 1 gal syrup. I’m not sure it is sold as concentrated as this anymore, seems watery these days.
    As to the “hackers diet” just ad yeast and a fermentation lock…

  3. Here in northern WI, everyone who has more than a few maple trees at least taps their trees, if not make their own maple syrup. Most just collect the sap and sell it to the bigger syrup places. Either way, it is a common pastime involving lots of beer, and other recreational activities (snowmobiling, zip lines, etc.). I grew up doing this every spring. Our setup looks almost identical.

  4. There is nothing new about running hoses between the trees and using a vacuum to suck the sap through the system. This is sugarbush/cabin a sucre SOP and has been for at least 30 years. This sort of technology was on display during field trips to the local sugarbush when I was in primary school in the 80s. The only thing here that might be new is throwing an Arduino into the mix.

    1. The cabal that conspires to keep the little syrup producers little with their imposition of unwelcome quotas. Meanwhile, south of the border, American syrup production has grown due to Canada’s internally imposed limits.

      And for the consumer, real maple syrup remains bloody expensive no matter the source!

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