eduardo cesarFocusing on the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, the development of clean and renewable energy sources will probably not result in any dominant model. The tendency is that each country will create its own combination of matrixes, chosen from among various biofuel categories, solar energy or wind energy and later on, probably hydrogen, able to ensure energy efficiency and help the world mitigate the effects of climate changes. Basic research and technological state-of-the-art development is pointing in this direction, as attested to by the workshop “Physics and Chemistry of Climate Change and Entrepreneurship“, which brought together Brazilian and British researchers in the FAPESP auditorium in São Paulo City on February 26 and 27.
Organized by FAPESP Foundation, Great Britain’s Institute of Physics (IOP) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), with the support of the British Embassy in Brasília, Great Britain’s Royal Academy of Science and The Royal Society, the event focused on experiments being conducted in various places around the world, with a special emphasis on Brazil and Great Britain, countries that have recently made ambitious decisions to deal with climate change. The British government has agreed to reduce at least 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; the Brazilian government established the year 2020 as the deadline to deal with the challenge of reducing the deforesting of the Amazon Rain Forest by 80%, responsible for half of Brazil´s contribution to global warming. “Commitments are important, because the planet will get warmer for a longer period of time if we delay taking any action”, said Carlos Nobre, a researcher at the National Space Research Institute/Inpe and coordinator of the Programa FAPESP de Pesquisa sobre Mudanças Climáticas Globais climate change research program, that will invest R$ 100 million in the next ten years – approximately R$ 10 million a year – to organize basic and applied courses on the causes of global warming and its impact on people’s lives. The workshop’s activities are part of this program. “Our intention is to encourage the mitigation of climate changes and promote entrepreneurism in the field of clean technology while focusing on the two countries’ recent advances in this respect”, Nobre added.
Of course the Brazilian experience in the field of biofuels was an important part of the workshop. Physicist Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director of FAPESP, gave a presentation on the success of the technology for sugarcane ethanol, which currently accounts for one half of the fuel consumed by Brazilian cars. In addition to substituting petroleum, ethanol has an additional advantage in the fact that it produces less carbon dioxide (CO2) than gasoline and a significant part of this gas is re-absorbed by the next sugar cane harvest. The increase in sugar cane productivity since the 1970s has corresponded to 4% a year, thanks to research projects that multiplied the number of sugar cane cultivars, adapting them to different circumstances. These gains have widened the gap between Brazilian technology and U.S. technology, which extracts ethanol from corn. The United States is the biggest producer of corn ethanol, which is supported by generous government subsidies. “The major issue is to what extent we will continue to increase the productivity of sugar cane ethanol”, said Brito Cruz. The Programa FAPESP de Pesquisa em Bioenergia/Bioen bioenergy research program was launched in June last year to maintain Brazil’s technological leadership in this field – especially that in the State of São Paulo, where most of the sugar cane plantations and ethanol plant complexes are located. The objective of this program is to stimulate and organize research activities in São Paulo institutions and improve the existing expertise in this respect.
Brazil is not a typical country in terms of energy grids. Thanks to investments in hydroelectric power plants and biofuels, Brazil extracts 46% of its energy from renewable sources, which is much higher than the global average of 13%, and the average 6% extracted by the world’s developed nations, members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development/OECD. Investments in ethanol technology began in the late 1970’s, when the country, adversely affected by the oil crisis, started investing in oil exploration technology in deep waters and in the search for alternative fuels. Ethanol-fueled cars began to be produced in the 1980s, but almost disappeared in 1990’s, because of the plunging oil prices. From 2003 onwards, the advent of flex fuel cars which run on gasoline, ethanol or a blend of the two fuels, allowed ethanol to regain lost space. Nowadays, approximately 90% of the new cars sold in Brazil run on flex fuel. “Gasoline has become the alternative fuel in Brazil”, said Brito Cruz, who pointed out that clean ethanol is sold at gas station fuel pumps, while the gasoline sold in service stations is blended with 25% ethanol.
Brito Cruz emphasized that the feasibility of sugar cane ethanol should not be seen as a mandatory solution for other nations. “The solutions will be country-specific and region-specific. After the Second World War, all countries started pursuing the objective of generating their own energy or, if that was not possible, ensuring supplies from reliable sources in other countries. Each country followed its own way by seeking strategies in line with its reality”,he stated. The current idea that the expansion of sugar cane might lead to the deforesting of the Amazon Rain Forest was challenged by the scientific director of FAPESP. “There are a number of reasons why planting sugar cane in the Amazon Region is a bad idea”, he stated, as he showed the audience the main sugar plantation areas in the State of São Paulo and the Northeast Region on the map of Brazil and explained that these areas lie at least 2 thousand kilometers away from the rainforest. He also referred to the international controversy, according to which the increase in sugar cane plantations to produce biofuel would result in a shorter supply of food products. This does not hold true in the case of Brazil, because only 1% of the farmland in Brazil (equivalent to 0.5% of the entire Brazilian territory) is taken up by sugar cane plantations for the production of ethanol, while 49% of the nation’s territory is pastureland. “It’s possible to expand sugar cane plantations without causing any impact on food production and without the need to deforest new areas”, he said, showing that this situation can also be reproduced in Africa, which has fallow lands that could be used for the production of bioenergy.
This controversy had surfaced early on during the event, when Richard Pike, the head of the Royal Society of Chemistry, criticized the option of investing in biofuels, alleging that this would place food safety at risk. He argued that, in the case of Great Britain, the use of solar energy and waste-mitigating measures were the most sustainable solutions to achieve the goal of reducing emissions by 80%. “If the guidelines of the European Union to substitute 5.75% of the fossil fuels with biofuels by 2010 were applied, more than 19% of the farmlands in Europe would be affected”, he stated. Pike was challenged in the next presentation, given by physicist José Goldemberg, former dean of the University of São Paulo, in whose opinion the diagnosis of the British scientist was based on an “Eurocentric point of view”. “We have enough available farmland here in Brazil to plant sugar cane. All you have to do is import ethanol from Brazil instead of producing it yourselves”,he stated. “The production of tea in England depended on the importing of raw material from India in the 19th century”.
Fernando Galembeck, a professor at the Chemistry Institute of the State University of Campinas/Unicamp, showed that the on-going investments in science, technology and innovations in the scope of sugar cane production have also resulted in the production of other items besides sugar and ethanol, such as the lysine used in food supplements, as well as polyesters, pulp, vitamin B, solvents, polyethylene and electric power from bagasse, an example of the synergy between food products, fuels and the production of materials. “In 2007, the planted area corresponded to 2 mega-hectares (Mha), but Brazil has approximately 80 Mha of pastureland, much of it underused”, he pointed out.
The efforts of basic and applied research in the search of what has been conventionally referred to as second-generation ethanol, to be extracted from lignocellulose, were referred to by Britain’s Richard Templer, from the Imperial College, and by Brazil’s Elói Garcia, from the National Institute of Metrology, Standardization and Industrial Quality/In metro. The development of technology to produce ethanol from lignocellulose opens up perspectives for the multiplication of fuel production, extracting ethanol from plants and agro-industrial wastes. In the case of sugar cane, this would allow for the use of sugar cane bagasse and waste, which comprise two-thirds of the plant’s biomass. Templer referred to the work of the Porter Alliance, a network of 130 researchers from several British institutions, to develop sustainable options for renewable fuels based on lignocellulose. The related lines of investigation include genetic studies to obtain new plant varieties high in raw materials, such as the deciduous trees of the Salix species, willows and poplars, and grasses of the Miscanthus genus, and the optimization of processes that degrade the fibers and allow for the extraction of the fuel – by using, for example, the Gloeophyllum trabeum fungus. “No research institution will be able to determine, alone, which are going to be the most sustainable choices. This work will have to involve the cooperation of the whole world”, said Templer. Elói Garcia spoke about the research work being conducted at the Inmetro, in partnership with the Centro de Pesquisas e Desenvolvimento/Cenpes research and development center of Petrobras, using the digestive tract of animals and insects that feed on sugar cane bagasse as a model for the study of microorganisms and enzymes able to break down the lignocellulose. The models currently being studied include bovines and goats, termites, cockroaches and beetles.
Solar energy is one of Europe’s strongest bets in the search for renewable energy grids. Germany, for example, is outstanding because it takes advantage of 40% of its photovoltaic potential, in a developing effort that, when its industrial production of technology doubles, the production costs drop by approximately 20%. With 20 years experience in this respect, Germany is expected to achieve parity with conventional energy within a decade, in the amount of US$ 0.20 per kilowatt/hour (kWh). The current cost of photovoltaic energy in Germany is US$ 0.43 per kWh. Ian Forbes, from the School of Computer Sciences, Engineering and Information Sciences at the University of Northumbria, presented England’s research efforts at the workshop. England’s insolation levels are slightly lower than those in Germany. The second generation of this technology, which has enabled costs to be reduced by substituting silicon plates with other semiconductor materials, has come up against some obstacles related to the scarcity of some of the compounds, such as gallium and indium. “At congresses held in Europe, specialists have estimated that by 2020, photovoltaic solar energy might supply more than 90% of the demand for electricity in the continent”, he said.
British researcher John Twidell also emphasized that solar energy will be useful for such things as heating and pumping of water, electric power generation and refrigeration. “Photovoltaic cells will have to be integrated into building construction designs and architects will have to be trained to do this”,said Twidell, director of the Amset Center at the UK’s Montfort University, which sponsors research and education on renewable energy and sustainability. In his opinion, the development of solar energy. which still needs technological advances to become more efficient and competitive, depends on the creation of public policies that encourage technological change. He mentioned the case of the European Union, which established the year 2020 as the deadline for 20% of the energy used by European countries to come from renewable sources. Still in compliance with these goals, to supply its population and industries from different economic sectors, each of the 27 member countries of the European Union must have at least ten more renewable energy sources than the currently available ones. “In Great Britain, for example, all the new buildings will have to comply with the carbon-free concept by 2018. If these constructions use energy that contributes to carbon emissions, they will have to offset this with the use of alternative sources such as photovoltaic cells, wind energy or biofuels”,he explained.
Still in regard to the applications of solar energy, Patrick Dunlop, a researcher from Ireland’s Ulster University presented his research group’s work on developing low-cost methods to disinfect water through exposure to the sun; the method is made for poor regions or regions in emergency situations in terms of water treatment. On sunny days, six hours of exposure are enough to kill a wide range of microorganisms. Children who are given water treated in this manner have seven times less possibilities of contracting cholera in comparison to other children. “Nowadays, 1.8 billion people don´t have access to adequately treated water; climate changes can make this situation even more dramatic”, says Dunlop. Strategies that are being tested in countries like Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe involve such measures as the assembly of portable photo catalysis equipment and the distribution of plastic bags and special bottles, the objective of which is to facilitate the storage of water for purification by solar radiation.
Brazil has moved forward in terms of ethanol technology, but the same cannot be stated in relation to solar and wind energy. Brazil has double the insolation levels to those in Germany, which has the world’s biggest solar energy market, but this market is restricted to the heating of water in homes and to the generation of electric power in remote areas. The problem is the high cost of the equipment. The grid is not even mentioned in the federal government’s Programa de Incentivo às Fontes Alternativas de Energia Elétrica/Proinfa program for the development of alternative energy sources. The situation is slightly better in relation to wind energy. Data presented at the workshop by Enio Bueno Pereira, a researcher at the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais/Inpe research institute, shows that, even though the installed capacity of wind generation has multiplied by eight in the period from 2005 to 2007, it is still at a very low level: last year, the installed capacity corresponded to 247 megawatts (MW), in comparison to 8 thousand MW in China and 6 thousand MW in India. These two countries have been investing heavily in the energy grid. It is estimated that Brazil has the potential to generate 143,5 gigawatts of wind energy, half in the Northeastern Region alone. According to Pereira, computer models suggest that Brazil´s wind power potential can be expanded because of climate change, thanks to the possible increase of the wind regime in some of the North Region states, such as Pará.
Physicist Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro/UFRJ and director of the research and post-graduate engineering institute/Coppe, criticized the advances of thermal electricity in Brazil’s energy grid and showed that the potential of exploiting hydroelectric power energy, which is a lot less polluting, is still very big in Brazil. “Going in the opposite direction to history, the Brazilian government has decided to place its chips on thermoelectric power plants fueled by on natural gas and diesel oil”, said the professor. Executive secretary of the Fórum Brasileiro de Mudanças Climáticas forum on climate change, Pinguelli provided an explanation for the Brazilian option. In his opinion, although there is a lot of resistance towards the creation of new reservoirs and dams, few people realize the damage, including to human health, caused by the burning of oil to produce electric power. “The protest movement of the people affected by dams is quite organized, because historically these people have been very badly treated by the authorities”,he stated. The physicist concluded his presentation at the workshop by talking about technological opportunities. He showed a film illustrating the prototype of a power plant, designed at Coppe, which generates power from ocean waves.
Research in the field of bio-geo-engineering, although far from offering short-term alternatives, has moved forward in the last few years, thanks to the encouragement of the George W. Bush Administration, in whose opinion global warming should be dealt with by creating an apparatus of technological solutions able to mitigate the effects of global changes and not by reducing the use of fossil fuels. The ideas being researched include ways of capturing carbon from the atmosphere by means of “artificial trees” and confining it to the subsoil, pumping carbon dioxide in liquid state into the space that had once held oil and gas reserves, and mechanisms that resemble field studies, such as the fertilization of oceans by launching soluble iron or by using pumps to pump water up from under the sea to the surface. According to Paul Valdes, a professor at the University of Bristol, many of these ideas are not economically feasible if based on the existing technology. “But they tend to seem less absurd given the delay to do what has to be done, which is to reduce emissions”, said Valdes, at the workshop held at the main office of FAPESP.
According to the professor, bio-geo-engineering solutions seem more plausible when they refer to strategies to increase the albedo (the surface reflectivity of the sun’s radiation) on the earth’s surface – with the objective of cooling the environment and offsetting the effects of global warming. “It has to be emphasized that these solutions might mitigate some of the effects of climate changes, but they do not avoid, for example, the oceans’ acidification caused by the increase of carbon in the atmosphere, which generates impacts on marine biodiversity, as exemplified by the death of the coral reefs”, he stated. It is a fact that the proposals to increase the albedo include ideas that sound like science fiction, such as installing giant mirrors in orbit to reflect part of the solar radiation, or cover deserts with reflecting material, to reduce the planet’s temperature.
There are also simpler applications, such as the planting of agricultural cultivars with a higher capacity to reflect solar radiation or the use of construction materials able to produce the same effect. Fernando Galembeck, from Unicamp, mentioned the pigment he and his team had developed at Unicamp, the related technology of which was later transferred to the Bunge company. Used in white paints, the nanostructured white pigment increases the reflectiveness of sunlight on walls and buildings, reducing the heat and the need for air conditioning. Valdes referred to research studies conducted in England, according to which certain varieties of sorghum, barley and corn have significantly more albedo than other varieties. He states that climate models suggest that the use of these varieties with higher albedo could offset the effects of the 1 degree Celsius temperature increase with potentially more significant effects on the Northern Hemisphere. “There’s a lot of research to be conducted in this field, but these solutions seem more realistic than those involving massive investments”, Valdes said.Republish