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New frontier

Expansion of Brazil's ethanol production depends on investment in basic and applied science

UNICAThe prospect of a fall in the supply of oil, whose price has recently gone over the historic level of US$ 100 a barrel, plus the global effort to cut the use of fossil fuels, have unleashed a global quest for new technology capable of enabling the efficient production of energy from renewable sources with lower environmental impact. Brazil has entered this race with a comparative advantage, since it has had technology for producing ethanol from sugarcane since the 1970s, when it introduced the Proálcool program. Today, with annual production in excess of 17 billion liters, the country is the world’s second biggest producer, after the United States, which manufactures some 20 billion liters of bio-fuel from corn.

In both Brazil and the United States, which jointly account for 70% of the world’s production, ethanol consumption is limited to the domestic markets. Part of the Brazilian production fuels a fleet of more than three million flex-fuel vehicles (bi-fuel) while another part is added to gasoline. Last year, foreign sales did not exceed US$ 1.4 billion, less than 1% of the country’s total exports. “The international market still doesn’t exist,” recognized Marcos Jank, president of the Sugarcane Industry Union (Unica) recently. This entity, along with Brazil’s Export Promotions’ Agency (Apex), is promising to start an international campaign this year to publicize the advantages of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline.

The great Brazilian challenge is to increase ethanol production, gain scale and convince the international market that increased supply does not harm the production of grain or the environment. In a country with a potential agricultural area of 152.5 million hectares, i.e., 18% of its territory, of which only slightly more than half is being used, there is the alternative of expanding sugarcane plantations, which still cover only 6 million hectares. “It’s possible to expand plantations without displacing food production,” says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director. Still, a lot of science will be required to achieve better results, both in the agricultural and in the industrial areas.

Over 30 years, investments in research by the Agronomic Institute of Campinas (IAC), by the Sugarcane Plantation Technology Center (CTC), which grew out of the Coopersucar Research Center, and by the Brazilian Agriculture and Livestock Farming Research Company (Embrapa), among others, have allowed Brazilian productivity to leap from 3,000 liters of ethanol per hectare to 6,000 liters. “This advance has reduced ethanol costs relative to those of gasoline,” recalls Brito Cruz. In 2000, these costs were similar but  ethanol already has the competitive edge relative to fuel produced from oil.

Agricultural research is advancing, with the help of genomics among other factors, and is likely to further increase the amount of energy obtained by fermenting sugarcane saccharose. There are also good prospects for increasing productivity  from the advances being made in mechanization technology in harvesting,  precision agriculture, and distillation processes, etc. The problem is that saccharose accounts for just one third of sugarcane’s potential energy. “The great challenge will also be to use sugarcane pulp, where two-thirds of the energy is concentrated,” says the scientific director of FAPESP, adding the proviso, however, that straw and bagasse are not all wasted: when burned in boilers they generate part of the energy that the refineries themselves consume.

UNICANew technology
Acquiring the technology to use pulp is at the heart of the global race to produce energy from renewable sources. In the case of Brazil, taking advantage of pulp will be the means to consolidate our  position as global leaders : a broad study by researchers from the Interdisciplinary Center for Strategic Planning (Nipe) at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), at the request of the Management and Strategic Studies Center (CGEE), concluded that by 2025 the country will be able to produce 200 billion liters of ethanol, enough to substitute some 5% to 10% of all the gasoline consumed worldwide, provided  sugarcane plantations  multiply sevenfold. However, to do so over the next ten years it will have to develop ethanol production technology by thermo-chemical means and the enzymatic hydrolysis of bagasse and straw. “Without hydrolysis it would be necessary to expand the area much more to achieve the same production level,” emphasizes Mirna Yvonne Gaya Sacandiffio, a Nipe researcher who  is a member of the research coordination team.

The areas for sugarcane plantation expansion have been mapped out already. Nipe researchers have scrutinized 80 million hectares of Brazilian territory and concluded that in a little more than half (42 million hectares to be precise, spread across 17 areas in the north of Tocantins, south of Maranhão, Mato Grosso, Goiás and the Minas Triangle), cane would grow at productivity rates similar to the national average. “We ignored protected areas, Indian reserves, the Amazon basin and the Pantanal region. We prioritized areas where there is no concentration of sugarcane, like São Paulo and the Zona da Mata area, as well as regions where the slope is greater than 12%, which would render mechanized cutting impossible. At no time did we think about substituting crops,” emphasizes Mirna.

To guarantee a sustainable increase in ethanol production the Nipe researchers devised technology-intensive “model refineries,” organized in clusters to take maximum advantage of the alcohol pipelines that Petrobras is beginning to plan, or installed in areas that enable using railroad and waterway transport for  distribution of production. “It makes no sense to transport renewable fuel in trucks,” she notes.

This scenario makes it clear that if Brazil wants to have at least 5% of the world market in renewable energy, it must invest heavily in basic and applied research. Silvio Crestana, president of Embrapa, calculates that this figure would have to be close to R$ 1 billion over the next five years. The Action Plan of the Ministry of Science and Technology for the 2007-2010 period, has earmarked R$ 196.90 million for the Ethanol Science, Technology and Investment Program in the period.

São Paulo may play an important part in this research effort: the state is responsible for both 63% of Brazil’s ethanol production and for 55% of the country’s scientific output. The three state-run universities (University of São Paulo – USP, State University of Campinas – Unicamp, and Paulista State University – Unesp) plus 19 research institutes account for 40% of the Brazil’s main researchers and were largely responsible for the advances that have ensured the competitiveness of the country’s ethanol production chain.

FAPESP’s scientific director stresses that this is not about expanding the state’s ethanol production, since the land available for sugarcane is already occupied, “but recognizing that this is an excellent opportunity for the industry to produce equipment and technology to be used in refineries throughout Brazil.” He also adds that ethanol will only gain market share (and the status of a commodity – as is the case with oil) if producers from other countries come on board. “Only then will the fuel be feasible, even if other countries have difficulty producing it at such competitive costs,” says Brito Cruz. This prospect, according to Brito, also opens up a new market for Brazilian technology, from equipment manufacturing to  fuel production.

Energy vs. food
The prospects for expanding Brazil’s ethanol production were presented at the workshop on bio-energy organized jointly by FAPESP, the British Embassy, and the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council of the United Kingdom (BBSRC), at the close of the Brazilian-British Year of Science and Innovation.

“Brazil is the only country that can produce ethanol on a scale that can meet global demand,” recognized John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government. He cautioned, however, that the country must also invest in increasing food production and added: “This will only be possible if there is scientific research.”

His main argument is that the world’s population is likely to grow by 50% over the next 30 years and pressure not only energy production but also food production, especially grain. “Global demand for food is going to rise, especially in countries that are starting to invest in reducing their poverty indices,” he warned, including Brazil on this list.

He reminded his audience that 1.1 billion people currently live on less than 50 pence a day. “If they had money their diet would change,” he stressed. He presented the results of studies showing that with an income equal to £ 1 a day, it is only possible to have access to “basic” agricultural products. But if the income increases by 50% (to £ 1.50p a day) the consumption of dairy products and meat grows, as does demand for grain used in animal feed. “With more than £ 5 it is possible to begin consuming commodities and then prices rise,” Beddington warned.

Demand for food will be even stronger if the planet’s temperature increases by 2ºC. “Crops will be affected by drought, mainly in Africa and some Latin American countries,” said the Chief Adviser. This scenario poses a challenge for Brazil, he observed. “Science will be needed to respond to the demand for food and for more energy.”

Steve Visscher, interim Chief Executive of the BBSRC, who also attended the meeting, highlighted that the British government wants to incrase its investments in research into sustainable agriculture, which according to him, have been falling over the last few years due to a reduction in demand. “Bio-energy is also a new theme,” he added. Both themes will be on the list of priorities for  British investment. “We recognize Brazil’s expertise and we’ll be able to collaborate in the future. There will be financing opportunities if we can identify common areas of interest.”

Research center
The Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) has announced that it plans to set up a Bio-ethanol Research Center in Campinas, in the same area where the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS) is located. The initiative is forecast in the Science and Technology development program. “The center will carry out basic and applied research in the fields where we have a lack of knowledge,” says Rogério Cerqueira Leite, project coordinator. The inauguration is scheduled for the end of this year.

The idea, according to Cerqueira Leite, is to create a basic research platform with capacity for housing between 150 and 200 researchers, who will operate along the same lines as the LNLS. “All over the country there are many people working, for example, with enzymatic hydrolysis. We’ll be at the heart of a research network with access to our laboratories,” says the center’s coordinator. According to Cerqueira Leite, Brazil has advanced a lot in the area of agricultural improvements. “But we’ve done very little to understand what happens in plants when it converts solar energy into chemical energy,” was the example he gave.

The center will also have a “set of laboratories for applied research” on a 25,000 m2 piece of land already appropriated by the Municipal Administration, next to the LNLS. “This is where the heavier machinery, like a large enzymatic hydrolysis reactor, will be located” he said. There, for example, we will set up and test the project for a new harvester that has already been designed by a team of researchers linked to Unicamp and that is being developed by a private company. “We want to introduce advanced technology at all production phases. In agriculture, for example, it will be necessary to change the way in which we plant and harvest, by using a lot of IT and automatization for improved production.”

“We’re beginning to hire people,” added Cerqueira Leite. The center’s budget is yet to be defined. “We won’t have a very big structure. “About R$ 20 million to R$ 30 million a year would be satisfactory.”