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Ethanol that mobilizes the world

Conference shows the efforts of Brazil and other countries in their search for new ways to produce biofuels

Eduardo CesarA rare moment: flowering sugarcane in the Serra da Mantiqueira mountain rangeEduardo Cesar

Ten huge posters with photographs of sugarcane hanging from the ceiling eased the formality of the entrance hall at the convention center in Campos de Jordão, a mountain town 173 km away from São Paulo city. The posters were a reminder that Brazil has the most efficient technology for producing sugarcane ethanol in the world. There is still a comfortable distance vs. other countries, but the presentations and talks in the entrance hall and in the adjacent rooms over the four days of the First Brazilian BioEnergy Science and Technology Conference – BBEST), in August, indicated that the race for new ways of making more biofuels – from grasses and other plants such as sorghum, sweet potato and tobacco – has become more intense.

In Brazil as in other countries, pilot or demonstration plants that expand the scale of the production of technologies that have proven to be successful in laboratories are being built or have gone on-stream already – one of them, in Denmark, uses corn straw. BP (British Petroleum) is building the first cellulosic ethanol plant in Florida, in the United States. This is to start operating commercially in 2013 and its raw material is native elephant grass. “All the alternatives presented so far have a financial and/or environmental cost higher than that of the Brazilian system of fermenting sugarcane sucrose,” commented Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director, in an interview to O Globo, a daily newspaper. According to him, the Brazilian sugarcane alcohol production technology is unlikely to be outdone in the near future. At the opening conference, the physicist José Goldemberg reiterated: “The production in the United States of corn ethanol uses a lot of fossil energy, making Brazilian production, whose raw material is sugarcane, far more advantageous from the financial and sustainability standpoints, as the mills produce energy from sugarcane bagasse and are practically self-sufficient.”

In September, the pilot plant of CTBE (the National Laboratory of Bioethanol Science and Technology) in Campinas was meant to go on-stream. Its purpose is to produce cellulosic ethanol – or second-generation ethanol – in reactors holding 100 to 1,000 liters. “We’re working intensely with firms in this sector,” said Marcos Buckeridge, CTBE’s scientific director and coordinator of the Bioethanol INCT (National Institute of Science and Technology)

Corporate teams are also active. Oxiteno has developed an additive to use with ethanol in diesel engines and is now working toward expanding the scale of production and starting sales of this as soon as possible. Amyris Brasil is counting on the production of biodiesel and bio-kerosene for aircraft by transforming sugarcane juice with genetically modified microorganisms.

The studies of the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (Bioen) integrated two groups of researchers that were previously far removed from each other: the experts in classical improvement, on one hand, and the experts in genomic analysis, on the other. “Were highly integrated and conducting experiments that we had never imagined before,” stated Glaucia Souza, a professor from the Chemistry Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP) and one of the Bioen coordinators. One of the studies consisted of analyzing 620 of the genotypes of the varieties of sugarcane grown by the Inter-University Network for the Development of the Sugar and Alcohol Sector (Ridesa), a consortium of federal universities. This network focuses on improving the genetics of sugarcane, along with the companies (see text) The analysis indicated which varieties might accumulate more sugar and conduct photosynthesis at the same time, with improved productivity. Normally, the accumulation of sugar in the culm inhibits sugarcane photosynthesis.

The São Paulo Center of Bioenergy Research, announced in December 2009, is progressing, with joint investments by the São Paulo state government, the state universities and FAPESP (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 168). According to Luís Cortez, a professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and joint coordinator of special programs at FAPESP, the universities are releasing public calls to select and hire researchers, while they build the new center’s laboratories. “The forecast is that by the end of next year the laboratories will be ready for the researchers to start working,” he says.

The general aim of these initiatives is the same: to raise the productivity of biofuels in Brazil, which is now the second, rather than the first, in volume of ethanol production. Since 2005, the United States has been the number one producer, with their corn ethanol, though with lower productivity and higher costs. Rubens Maciel Filho, a professor from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), who is part of Bioen, said that the productivity of ethanol per hectare in Brazil might grow from the current 6 thousand liters to 14 thousand liters “through the use of innovative techniques.” He presented two: vacuum fermentation and using enzymes produced by the fungus Aspergillus niger to break down sugarcane bagasse cellulose.

Elba Bon, a researcher from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), estimates that it is possible to extract another 36.5 liters of ethanol per ton of sugarcane, from which 80 liters of ethanol are already extracted, by using 12% of the volume of bagasse (most of it is burnt to generate electricity at the mills) and 50% of the sugarcane straw (half remains on the soil). “We can double production without increasing the area under cultivation, by also using corn and wheat residues.”

EDUARDO CESARMounds of bagasse: source of ethanol, provided the fungi helpEDUARDO CESAR

Her group at UFRJ has developed new pre-treatment techniques for bagasse and straw, involving dry or wet grinding with water. The ground biomass is subjected to enzymes that act on the cellulose and produce a glucose syrup, which could enter the regular production line of ethanol lignin. “We need a financially viable continuous separation method on a larger scale,” she commented. The team has evaluated various fungi that produce enzymes that degrade cellulose and has indentified a fairly promising strain of Tricoderma brought from the Amazon region. The challenge now – for this and for other groups in Brazil and in other countries – is to produce enzymes in large amounts and at a low cost.

The representatives of the research centers, the government and American firms showed that they have ambitious targets. “We can become the best,” stated Nicholas Carpita, a researcher from Purdue University, who works on catalytic methods for producing cellulosic ethanol. “There are many opportunities to increase production and the diversification of biofuels,” said Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a biofuel research enterprise created in 2007 at the University of California at Berkeley (see interview). Bruce Dale, from the State University of Michigan, presented a biomass pre-treatment method using concentrated hot ammonia, which, according to him, is at the pilot test stage and has proven to be “very efficient” to remove sugars from agricultural waste such as wheat straw, and from grasses that are native to the United States, switchgrass and Miscanthus.

Single focus
“Our objective is to catalyze the transformation of the energy system and to ensure United States leadership in clean energy,” said Sharlene Weatherwax, director of biological and environmental sciences at the Department of Energy (DOE), which is trying to integrate basic and technological research so that scientific discoveries result in commercial applications. The Office of Science, to which she is accountable, provides support for 27 thousand graduate students, 26 thousand researchers in multiple user facilities such as laboratories and pilot plants, 300 academic institutions, and 17 proprietary research laboratories. “There’s a single focus and multidisciplinary work, based on science conducted by teams,” she stated.

In August, the DOE released the document U.S. billion-ton update: biomass supply for a bioenergy and bioproducts industry, organizing the activities of universities, companies and government in order to expand the production of fuel from biomass, including urban and forest waste, over the next 20 years. Also in August, President Obama announced that the Departments (equivalent to Ministries in Brazil) of Agriculture, Energy and Navy might invest as much as US$ 510 million over the next three years, together with companies, to develop biofuels for military vessels and commercial transport.

In the Netherlands, the team from BE-Basic, a consortium of 26 universities and companies, is working on a pilot plant, preparing a demonstration plant for making use of biomass and expanding international collaboration – the most recent agreement, announced at BBEST, with Brazilian researchers, through FAPESP. In Denmark, the Dong Energy group opened, in 2009, Inbicon, a refinery that transforms 30 thousand tons of corn straw a year into 5.4 million liters of cellulosic ethanol and 13 thousand tons of lignin pellets, used in animal feed. Henning Jorgensen, from Inbicon, presented the refinery, which, according to him, can use sugarcane bagasse; after this, a researcher in the audience commented that their objective was not to process bagasse, but to sell technology to Brazil.

“We are losing competitiveness,” said Marcos Jank, chairman of Unica, the Sugarcane Industry Union. According to him, the production costs have risen by 35% since 2005, due to competition for land and the rise in the cost of labor and fertilizers. Jank said that he is looking for technologies to reduce costs, but has found it difficult to make progress. “The volume of research is small. Yes, 500 researchers are here, but they could be engaged in just one or two major projects. Research is still fragmented into small projects. We need major projects on the systematization of sugarcane, the use of straw and fermentation. We have urgent problems to solve.”

Maciel Filho emphasized the need to articulate the chain of knowledge in science and technology in order to improve ethanol production and productivity in Brazil. “Our position is good, but it will be challenged soon,” commented Francisco Nigro, a professor from the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP). Nigro, who helped to develop cars running on alcohol, also emphasized the need to encourage research, public policies, team integration and ethanol consumption.