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Multiple efforts

The Paulista Center for Research in Bioenergy will be set up with joint investments by the São Paulo government, state universities and FAPESP

MARCOS GARUTIOn the last day of 2009 the government of the state of São Paulo, FAPESP and the three São Paulo state universities signed a cooperation agreement that marked the launch of the Paulista Center for Research in Biodiversity, an initiative that seeks to create a scientific basis for expanding the competitiveness of Paulista and Brazilian research on energy obtained from biomass. By the agreement, the Department of Higher Education of the state is going to grant R$ 18.4 million to the University of São Paulo (USP), the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the Paulista State University (Unesp), which will be used for building laboratories, carrying out any necessary refurbishment and purchasing equipment. The universities, in turn, have undertaken to hire researchers in various areas of research on bioenergy, who will work jointly with the researchers already active in this field in the three institutions, in an integrated effort. FAPESP, on the other hand, has assumed the mission of selecting and funding bioenergy projects linked to the center, in addition to participating in the coordination of its board, whose headquarters will be at the Foundation. “The Paulista Center for Research in Bioenergy will complement the efforts in Brazil to create technological knowledge in bioenergy, reinforcing the basic science and preparation of human resources, objectives at which our three state universities are excellent”, explains FAPESP’s scientific director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz.

The format of the new center, which was the target of discussions throughout 2009, is based on sharing investments and responsibilities. Each of the three players involved – government, universities and FAPESP – is going to invest equal amounts. The agreement came as a response to a proposal developed by the universities and FAPESP, which was presented to the state government. “The Foundation and the Paulista state universities discussed at length the idea of setting up a bioenergy research center, housed in the three universities”, says Brito Cruz, who coordinated the proposal. “The state government approved the proposal that was put forward, setting aside the budgetary funds for use in the necessary infrastructure. The plan as presented anticipates investments being made by the state government in infrastructure, by FAPESP in research projects and by the universities in hiring professors”, he said.

The R$ 18.4 million of the agreement signed in December correspond to the state government’s investment in the first phase to set up the center. The governor of São Paulo, José Serra, said during the inauguration of the National Bioethanol Science and Technology Laboratory (CTBE), on January 22, that the resources for the Paulista Center for Research in Bioenergy are likely to exceed R$ 150 million, which projects an investment in excess of R$ 50 million for each of the parties.

The new laboratories will be multidisciplinary in character and involve researchers in areas such as agronomy, chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, engineering and social sciences. “The combined competences of the universities are the strength of this project and the objective is that Brazil makes advances in the area of knowledge in bioenergy”, says the dean of Unesp, Herman Voorwald. For the dean of Unicamp, Fernando Costa, the experience may define a new model for doing research. “The partnership between the universities, government and FAPESP is an innovative experience”, he says. “We now have the challenge of looking for the best researchers, either here in Brazil or abroad, to fill the vacancies that will be created”, says Costa. According to the dean of USP, João Grandino Rodas, the planned for partnership in the center reveals that universities are becoming more open to the demands of society. “The fact that the university is autonomous does not mean that it should restrict itself to looking after its own interests. Bioenergy is one of those themes that need to unite the efforts of all possible segments, because it has an impact both on people’s quality of life as well as on the development of the country. The advance in research in this field is going to provide benefits for society and also for our students and professors”, said the dean.

Physicist, José Goldemberg, dean of USP between 1986 and 1990, points out that the architecture of the new center provides a response to the challenges mapped out by the Bioenergy Commission of the São Paulo government, which he coordinated in 2007 and 2008. ‘It was clear to the commission that the expansion of ethanol production required an increase in productivity and that it was necessary to make advances in research in order to develop new technology”, says Goldemberg, according to whom other possibilities were raised to meet the problem, such as the creation of a state bioenergy institute. “I think this solution was interesting, because it’s going to bring in new people for research in bioenergy and it involves universities’ researchers in this effort. It’s not just the government that’s putting up the money”, he said. According to Franco Lajolo, vice dean of USP, who temporarily took over the position as dean at the end of 2009 and took part in the negotiations for the new center, the initiative is “a game in which all those taking part are going to win”. The essential thing, according to Lajolo, is to guarantee that there is no lack of funds for the next stages of the center. “The collaboration between universities, government and FAPESP is going to expand our capacity for solving major problems in bioenergy, which is a fundamental condition for us not to lose our competitiveness.”

Research in bioenergy has been growing in the country, particularly in São Paulo, the state where a good part of  sugarcane production in the country is concentrated, and involves federal, state and private sector initiatives. The Paulista Center of Research in Bioenergy, according to those whose brainchild it is, wants to differentiate itself from already existing initiatives and aim for advances on the frontiers of knowledge that are associated with the formation of qualified human resources.

MARCOS GARUTIPostgraduate programs
One of the new center’s ambitions, the feasibility of which is still being evaluated, is to create a post-graduation program involving the three universities. The three institutions have a tradition in bioenergy studies, above all in the area of agronomy, where USP and Unesp have particularly distinguished themselves in biomass conversion, which is well developed at Unicamp, and in genomics, within the scope of the FAPESP Sucest (Sugarcane Est) Program, which mapped out the functional gene fragments of sugarcane. Better known as the Cane Genome Program, this project was started in 1999 by some 240 researchers, led by Professor Paulo Arruda, from Unicamp, with funding from FAPESP and the Sugar and Alcohol Producers Cooperative of the State of São Paulo (Coopersucar). After 2003, Glaucia Mendes Souza, from USP’s Institute of Chemistry assumed coordination of Sucest and started the Sucest-FUN Project, comprising a network of researchers dedicated to functionally analyzing sugarcane genes and identifying those genes associated with certain agronomic characteristics.

The center will also promote an increase in the number of researchers working in the bioenergy field in the state of São Paulo. In the introductory phase, the three universities are likely to hire 17 teachers and researchers. This number should reach around 50, as new investments in the center are made by the government. Mapping out the professionals acting in the three São Paulo institutions was carried out by the Bioenergy Research Committee that organized the center proposal, comprising the scientific director of FAPESP, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, and professors Antonio Roque Dechen, from USP’s Luiz de Queiroz Higher School of Agriculture, Nelson Ramos Stradiotto, from the Institute of Chemistry of Unesp, and Luís Augusto Barbosa Cortez, from the School of Agricultural Engineering at Unicamp.

In the mapping out exercise 456 teachers and researchers were consulted, 365 of whom, or 80% of the total, filled in the questionnaire. The conclusion was that there is a significant number of researchers from the three universities who are conducting research into bioenergy and that their capabilities are concentrated on the production of biomass and on industrial processes linked to the production of bioenergy. “Brazilian presence in international publications is significant in the area of agronomy and the development of varieties of sugarcane, but it’s not as expressive in other areas”, says Cortez, from Unicamp. “We need to invest in research so that Brazil can seek to be leader in all areas, because it’s not enough to be strong in just some of them”, he says.

There is a relatively low number of researchers who work, for example, in the area of automotive engines, which poses a problem for the future of flex-fuel engines for ethanol and gasoline – they currently only exist in Brazil, are not the target of major investment by the local auto assemblers and will tend to lose competitiveness to gasoline and diesel engines, the development of which is being driven by the head offices of the auto manufacturers. “Having identified the strangulation points we shall be able to define better where to allocate human resources, reinforcing already existing areas and filling the gaps in the less researched areas”, says Antonio Roque Dechen, from Esalq-USP. For Nelson Stradiotto, from Unesp, increase in the number of researchers and encouraging the formation of PhDs will allow the country to be able to rely on a new generation of scientists working on cutting edge themes over the next 10 years. “We have to think big, because that’s what the United States is doing today”, he says.

Another area that has a limited number of researchers is that of biorefineries. This is an area that is looking to develop chemical inputs and green polymers, stimulating the substitution of oil by ethanol as a raw material. “The goal of the center is not simply to produce more fuel at a lower cost, but to produce wealth from knowledge. If we want biomass to succeed fossil fuels we need to make it as profitable as oil, by investing in new applications, like power generation and alcohol-chemistry, which expand income for the sector and for society”, says Cortez.

MARCOS GARUTICompetitive advantage
The scientific basis produced by the initiative seeks to help Brazil compete with other countries, notably the United States, in the transition to second generation technology; the technology that promises to extract energy from cellulose. Brazil, which has the most efficient first generation, ethanol-from-sugar-cane sucrose technology, has a competitive advantage in the second-generation technology race, which is its   enormous availability of biomass, in the form of bagasse and cane-straw. Such substrates correspond to two thirds of the energy available in sugarcane and today they are burned or used to generate electricity. However, the country has not invested as much as its competitors in overcoming the technological challenges that persist – even today, there is no economically feasible technology for extracting energy from cellulose. To overcome these challenges and look for win-win situations that will have an impact, the center will invest in basic research, leaving other, already existing initiatives with the problem of coming up with incremental advances. Applied research and technological development carried out at the center are likely to take place in cooperation with the private sector.

The new center is going to be incorporated into the effort of the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (Bioen), which was launched in July 2008 with the objective of advancing in basic science and technological development related to the generation of power from biomass. In addition to looking to make the Brazilian biofuel economically competitive, the center has a socio-environmental goal, which is to produce knowledge that is capable of improving the sustainability indicators in the sugarcane production chain. “The fundamental strategy of the center is to increase the number of scientists in basic science areas that are related to the themes of FAPESP’s Bioen Program in São Paulo”, said Brito Cruz, scientific director of the Foundation. “It’s very significant that the state government has approved the proposal of FAPESP and of the universities, guaranteeing additional support by way of direct investment for a research program organized by the Foundation”, he stated.

The center’s research programs should include the same areas that were planned when Bioen was set up, and which involve the whole of the sugarcane production chain. These are the production of biomass for bioenergy, research into ways of producing bioenergy, biorefineries and alcohol-chemistry, applications in automotive engines and, finally, sustainability aspects, such as the economic, social and environmental impacts of the use of bioenergy. Each of these lines of research will promote initiatives in the areas of education and publicity in order to encourage the transfer of knowledge produced to society.

Two areas considered fundamental for expanding the productivity of sugarcane are the mechanisms that involve photosynthesis in sugarcane and the functional relations of cane genomics. In the case of photosynthesis, the ambition is to know more about the process by which the plant fixes carbon, converting solar energy into chemical energy. This process is recognized as being not very efficient and in the case of sugarcane it has not aroused the curiosity of researchers. With regard to genomics, the intention is to create ways of genetically manipulating the plant to obtain varieties that adapt to different production environments, such as climate, water availability, fertilizers and herbicide tolerance. Even today, these varieties are obtained by traditional genetic improvement techniques.

Research into sustainability, a theme that has become as essential as that of productivity, will also be intensified. “For the development of bioenergy in Brazil, it is fundamental that we combine our efforts to increase productivity on the sustainability objective. Only sustainable bioenergy will have a future in the 21st century”, says Brito Cruz. In the field of agriculture there are emerging themes like the use of direct planting techniques to reduce soil compaction caused by mechanized harvesting, which are already used in growing corn and soy beans, but still new in sugarcane. The banning of burning in sugar plantations will open up research fields in areas related to soil fertility, the use of herbicides and issues related to biodiversity. “Improvements in the environmental and social indicators are directly related to the definition of a new cane agriculture, which begins by understanding the photosynthesis and genomics of sugarcane and includes redefinition of the most important stages that will lead to acceptance of sugarcane ethanol as an effectively renewable liquid fuel that has unquestionable environmental attributes, principally regarding its capacity for mitigating greenhouse gases”, says Antonio Roque Dechen, from Esalq (USP).

The inspiration for the new Center comes from the experience of countries like the United States, South Africa, Spain and France, but perhaps its main points of reference are the two centers created by the Department of Energy (DOE) in the United States. One of them the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), is for research into converting biomass into energy. The other, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), is dedicated more to research involving the production of biomass. These centers carry out joint research with research centers linked to various North American universities. “These centers abroad, notably those of the DOE, involve strong collaboration with good American universities and can serve as a model for us”, says Cortez, from Unicamp. “In association with private initiative there can be a good degree of complementarity in the actions and objectives of basic research and its applications”, he states.

Coordination of the center will be the responsibility of a board, headquartered at FAPESP and comprising seven members: one representative from FAPESP, one from each university, one from the state government and two from companies in the sugar and alcohol sectors. This board will determine the general direction of the center, monitor the introduction process, encourage efforts by the three universities and suggest partnerships. To assist the board an international consultative scientific council will be formed which will meet once a year to scientifically assess the programs and the results achieved. The scientific council will comprise at least six specialists of international renown, operating in basic research in areas that are related to those of the center.

A collaboration agreement is being developed with Unesco, an arm of the United Nations for Education Science and Culture, which foresees Unesco Category II status for the center (research centers not administered by Unesco, but acknowledged by it as being world class). The objective is to guarantee a greater international relationship. The recruitment of good students and researchers abroad is also considered strategic for helping to set up policies that comprise the so-called Brazilian ethanol diplomacy agenda: while promoting the technological leadership of Brazil it also helps guarantee markets in other countries.

Mathematician Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) and of the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World (TWAS), praised the international character of the center and said that the TWAS is interested in establishing a partnership with the initiative. “The new center will be able to bring about the formation of researchers who are not only from Brazil, but also from other nations, particularly from Africa, which has degraded areas that could be set aside for the production of ethanol”, he says. “It will be interesting to have a flow of PhDs and post-PhDs coming from developing countries to the new center”, says Palis.