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A center for Brazil and for the world

Mohamed Hassan, the executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, advocated the establishment of an international research center in Brazil

DIVULGATION Mohamed Hassan: biofuel for AfricaDIVULGATION

During his visit to Brazil to take part in a biofuels event, the executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (or TWAS), Mohamed Hassan, advocated the establishment in São Paulo of an international research center in this area. In the course of this interview, the 61-year old Sudanese physicist, who lives in the city of Trieste, in Italy, where TWAS has its headquarters, went into greater detail regarding his proposal:

How do you imagine that this international center for biofuels study in São Paulo would be?
This idea arose as a result of looking into the biofuels research that is being done around the world. Brazil and the United States account for about 70% of all scientific articles published in international scientific journals in this field. It may be the case that the United States publishes slightly more articles, but Brazil also publishes a very substantial number. I also observed that the state of São Paulo is very strong in the research area (not just in relation to biofuels, but on the scientific front as a whole) and accounts for 40% of all Brazilian research. That also gave me a lot of encouragement to make this proposal. In order to promote international cooperation in the area of biofuels research and planning, we have to look for one of the best centers that already exists in the world in this area. I think that the state of São Paulo is fully capable of transforming a biofuels research center into an international institution, operating on a global front.

How would this international center work?
There are many ways of setting up international centers. But the most important factor is that the government or state in which the center is located would have to bear the bulk of its costs, which is more or less the case here in Italy. In Trieste, for instance, where I am based, there is an international theoretical physics center and Italy foots about 90% of its expenses. The rest of the money comes from international organizations. The center works under an international umbrella. Here at TWAS we come under Unesco (which manages the academy’s funds and its staff). So the first thing that would be necessary is to have the support of local government, which I am confident will not be a problem in the case of São Paulo. Then there would have to be an international organization prepared to act as an umbrella for the center. That is something that would need to be discussed with various international organizations, including Unesco. The most important thing is the way that the center would work, that it should provide finance and scholarships for highly talented researchers from outside Brazil, especially from relatively poor countries. These researchers would come to Brazil to develop research and expertise in the biofuels area. Then they would go back to their countries of origin to disseminate what they learnt. Thus, Brazil would also benefit because it is a great way of attracting excellent students to the country, and Brazil is a world leader in biofuels.

How much money would need to be invested in a center like this?
Based on the experience that we have already had, I estimate that about US$ 20 million a year would be needed.

But at the start of the project, wouldn’t it be necessary to invest an extra amount in order to set up the center?
Obviously. But Brazil would not need to invest a great deal of money if it opted to turn an existing center into an international institution. In that case, there would be no need to invest in facilities and infrastructure, because all this is already in place. Another alternative would be to create a totally new center. Embrapa, for instance, could set up a new biofuels center. In this case, the initial investment would undoubtedly be greater.

How do you assess ethanol production in Brazil?
Brazil certainly has unique experience in this field. It is something that is very successful in economic terms while also being good for the environment. But we don’t know whether or not that experience can be reproduced elsewhere. It is precisely for this reason that we need more research. It is hard for other countries to reproduce what Brazil has done. It may be that the Brazilian experience will need to be adapted to different formats or perhaps we need to consider the idea of second generation biofuels using different types of plants. At the São Paulo conference we recommended that for places such as Africa, which has huge areas of land that are disregarded or located in deserts, we could try to use those areas for biofuel production. But a lot of research would be required to find plants capable of growing in harsh environments, where there is little water. In the case of Africa, we will need plants that can grow in such places. There is already some research of this kind being done, but not on a very large scale. Using corn (to produce ethanol), such as they do in the United States, is a problem; it is of no use for developing countries. Utilizing areas that agriculture currently disregards to produce biofuels is an issue that should be a priority for Africa.

Do you believe that sugarcane could be used to produce biofuels in some parts of Africa or is that hypothesis out of the question?
At present I don’t see how that could be done. Sugarcane needs a special environment, with significant amounts of water. It would not be commercially viable. I think the best bet would be other plants, such as bushes, which have the added benefit of fixing the soil and halting erosion, and which could be useful for biofuels production. For countries that lack Brazil’s abundance of water, that is likely to be the best way to invest in this field. If we take any other path, I fear that it may lead to food production problems. I’m not saying that all of Africa should follow this path. In some parts of it, such as in the south, it may be viable to plant sugarcane, but this would be a localized case.

Is there research into biofuels in Africa?
I’d say that there are only two or three African researchers specializing in biofuels. For us Africans, Brazil’s help would be very important in this area. Therefore, we really need this international center in Brazil. The center would also benefit the developed countries, including European ones, which do not have much in the way of research in this area. It is an opportunity for Brazil to take the role of leader in training people in this sector. Brazil should grasp this opportunity to make biofuels research a more global affair than it currently is. In the long run, it would also be good for Brazil from an economic point of view. If Brazil were to train people who specialize in this field and establish partnerships overseas, those experts would one day return to their countries and show their governments the importance of biofuels. Long-term, it would not only be biofuels research that would blossom, but also companies in this industry. That would help both the Brazilian economy and that of the world as a whole. As was made clear at the São Paulo conference, governments are interested in this area. But they need a leader.

The world economic crisis meant that oil prices dropped and some people say that a global recession may postpone the discussion on biofuels and climate changes. What is your opinion on this subject?
Anyone who thinks like this is being short-sighted regarding biofuels and climate changes. In the long term, when calculating the price of oil, one should also take into account the price that the environment pays for this choice. We should also include environmental damage in the price of oil. The world is in the midst of an economic crisis, but the worst thing will be the number of people who will become unemployed as a result in Europe, in the USA, everywhere. One of the advantages of biofuels will be the creation of a very large number of jobs. Imagine how many areas there are at present where nothing is being grown, especially in Africa, because of the dry soil, which could be used to plant species intended for biofuel production. Those areas will need thousands and thousands of workers – and this will be good for the economies of those countries. Also oil won’t last forever. We need to look for renewable alternatives, such as energy from the sun.

Could Brazil host international research centers in other fields?
The country could have a center in another renewable energy area, perhaps in solar energy. Currently there is no such international center in this field, one that could study the direct conversion of solar energy into electricity. The spacial sciences are also a cutting-edge sector in Brazil, just they are in China and in India, and this is another area where international cooperation is very necessary.

Is scientific cooperation between developing countries increasing?
When TWAS first began working on the issue of South-South cooperation about 25 years ago, there was very little cooperation between the developing countries and it was almost invisible. But there is an explanation for this: at that time, science in the developing countries, even the large ones, such as China, India and Brazil, was not very strong. Today the situation has changed. If we take a look at the world right now we will see that there are universities in Brazil, China, and India that are on par in terms of quality with institutions in Europe and the United States. We find world class universities in these countries. Maybe the research done in them is still slightly below the level one finds in the developed countries, but the education is on par. Moreover, on the part of the governments of these large developing countries – and I would also include Mexico in this group – there is a commitment to promoting South-South cooperation in scientific and technological areas.