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Obstacle race

Study indicates that Brazil plays a modest role in cellulosic ethanol research networks, despite its importance as a biofuel producer

GranBio cellulosic ethanol plant in São Miguel dos Campos, Alagoas: aiming to produce 80 million liters per year

GRANBIOGranBio cellulosic ethanol plant in São Miguel dos Campos, Alagoas: aiming to produce 80 million liters per yearGRANBIO

The race to produce second-generation ethanol at competitive prices is set to expand the existing supply of renewable energy, but some technological setbacks still need to be overcome. This type of ethanol, a biofuel, is extracted from the cellulose found in agricultural waste products like sugarcane bagasse, corncobs, or wood. An article published in the journal Scientometrics indicates that Brazilian science is handicapped in that race, when compared to its competitors. Authored by researchers from the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture (ESALQ) of the University of São Paulo (USP), the article mapped the scientific papers published worldwide on the topic of second-generation ethanol over a period of 30 years. It showed that despite being the second largest producer of first-generation ethanol, obtained from sugarcane, Brazil does not enjoy the same prominence in international scientific collaboration networks that tackle the bottlenecks of cellulosic ethanol production. The innovation systems of countries like the United States, China, and Germany are much more significant within these networks than those in Brazil, according to the research.

“Scientific knowledge is rarely produced in isolation; it requires collaborations among multiple institutions and countries in order to advance,” says an author of the paper, economist Luiz Gustavo Antonio de Souza, currently a post-doctoral intern at the Interdisciplinary Center for Energy Planning (NIPE) at Unicamp. The article was a result of his doctoral thesis at ESALQ, advised by Professor Márcia Azanha. In the case of second-generation ethanol, networking is a relevant factor. “There is no well-established technology; instead, there are packages of alternatives under study. Investigating the opportunities requires a joint effort by multiple groups,” says Souza.

The study analyzed 6,053 scientific articles from the Web of Science database, published up to 2012. All were tagged with keywords referring to fields involved in the investigation of second-generation ethanol, such as “pre-treatment”, “operation to disassemble the plant structure of cellulosic material”, or “enzymatic hydrolysis”, a pathway for transforming cellulose into glucose. The next step was to identify the countries, institutions, and researchers who worked together frequently, based on the papers published through collaborations. Research networks were represented as “balls of yarn”, with threads of varying thicknesses connecting the collaborating countries or institutions. The more frequent the collaboration, the thicker the thread (see infographic).

038-041_Redes colaborativas_232The Web of Science database shows that, in a period of 30 years, 103 countries contributed to the production of knowledge about second-generation ethanol. The United States tops the list, with 23% of all papers published. Then come China (9.8%) and Brazil (4.9%). American researchers predominate when it comes to collaborations. Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden are next on the list. China, Japan, India, and Brazil actually publish more papers than these European countries, but they are less connected. Brazilian research stands out when the analysis shifts its focus to institutions. USP is the third most collaborative institution, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of California.

Institutions like Unicamp and the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) also make an appearance on the institutional map. “The efforts in Brazil are concentrated at a handful of institutions,” says Souza. China has a similar number of papers as Brazil and is also well-positioned in the institutional category.  “The strategy in China is to reach out to the technologically capable, in this case the United States,” he explains.

The Brazilian research effort for second-generation ethanol is spread out across a number of initiatives. One of them, based predominantly on research conducted at universities, is tied to FAPESP’s Program for Research on Bioenergy (Bioen), created in 2008 to improve ethanol productivity and make advances in basic science and technological development. Glaucia Souza, professor at the USP Chemistry Institute and one of Bioen’s coordinators, says that the prominent position obtained by USP and the state of São Paulo is the result of a recent investment. “Because there are many thematic projects in the Bioen program, it is to common to get groups from other countries involved. This was also the case for second-generation ethanol,” says the researcher, in a reference to the National Institute of Science and Technology (INCT) of Bioethanol, for example. Coordinated by USP professor Marcos Buckeridge, the INCT of Bioethanol maintains collaborations with researchers in the United States, Russia, and the Netherlands, among others. Glaucia Souza also mentions the Center of Biological and Industrial Processes for Biofuels (CeProBIO), which involves a partnership with the European Union and is led by Igor Polikarpov at USP’s São Carlos Institute of Physics. When it comes to technological applications, the Brazilian Bioethanol Science and Technology Laboratory (CTBE), in the city of Campinas, has set up a second-generation ethanol pilot plant to assess the technologies proposed and sold worldwide.

On the corporate research front, an important initiative is the Joint Plan for Supporting Industrial Technological Innovation in the Sugar-based Energy and Chemical Sectors (PAISS), launched in 2011 by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) and the Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP), which allocated R$3 billion to new technologies in sugarcane biomass processing. As for projects, three demonstration plants have been built to produce second-generation ethanol. Each is owned by a different company: one by GranBio, in the city of São Miguel dos Campos (state of Alagoas), installed in 2014; one by Raízen, which recently started production at the Costa Pinto Plant in Piracicaba (São Paulo); and one by Abengoa, scheduled to start operating in 2016 in Pirassununga (São Paulo). The Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC) operates a smaller plant in São Manoel (São Paulo).

Foreign companies
All three demonstration plants have something in common – they use technologies developed outside Brazil. Since no mature knowledge for producing cellulosic ethanol was available locally, BNDES and FINEP decided to call in foreign companies. “Brazil has the necessary natural advantages for the development of cellulosic ethanol production technologies. We have natural resources and competitive biomass, from sugarcane bagasse and straw,” says Artur Milanez, manager of the biofuels division at BNDES. “Many foreign companies wanted to enter our market. Brazil has 400 sugarcane processing plants that remain idle for five months of the year in the off-season, and some do not yet utilize the fiber in sugarcane bagasse and straw. There is a lot of room for new partnerships,” he says. The expectation now is that Brazilian researchers will join the effort to eliminate technological bottlenecks and adapt these technologies to the local reality, considering that they were designed for the types of biomass available in the Northern Hemisphere, such as corn or wheat straw.

GranBio’s plant, the largest in the world for extracting cellulosic ethanol from sugarcane bagasse and straw, obtained technology licenses from several countries in order to start operating. The yeasts are supplied by DSM, a Dutch company, and Novozymes from Denmark provides the enzymes for hydrolysis. The Italian company Beta Renewables is responsible for the systems used for pre-treating the sugarcane biomass. “We have developed a close partnership with American Process, an industrial technologies and processes company based in the U.S.,” says Gonçalo Amarante Guimarães Pereira, a founding partner in GranBio and professor at the Institute of Biology at Unicamp. GranBio owns a stake in American Process. “Based on Brazilian strains used in first-generation ethanol, we developed a yeast at GranBio that has already been certified and will be used in the industry in the second half [of 2015],” says Pereira. GranBio invested $265 million in the plant and BNDES put in another R$300 million.

The panorama described in the paper in Scientometrics is real, Pereira says, but he has an optimistic interpretation for it. He says that Brazil’s disadvantage in international research networks is a weakness of Brazilian science in general, not limited to bioenergy research. “Being connected to networks is important, but can only advance when there is a possibility of cooperative funding. Today, oil being cheap, investments in renewable energy have become more scarce. I see a window of opportunity for GranBio to become the leading company in this sector. We are betting on second-generation ethanol at a moment when other interested parties don’t have much of an appetite for risk.” GranBio’s plant is currently at the commissioning stage, with the target of reaching full capacity by the end of 2015. The goal is to produce 80 million liters of ethanol per year.

As defined by the authors of the paper in Scientometrics, collaboration networks connect the innovation systems of different countries. They also get scientists and companies involved both in the generation of knowledge and in the commercial exploitation of technologies. In addition to having trouble participating in research networks, Brazil also struggles to engage the corporate sector in these scientific efforts, says José Maria Ferreira Jardim da Silveira, of the Institute of Economics at Unicamp. He is the researcher in charge of the Bioen Program Thematic Project that resulted in the published article, with the participation of Professor Ester Dal Poz, from Unicamp. Both are co-authors of the paper. The researcher sees difficulties in coordinating universities and companies. “Brazil is very good at science. But when it comes to the development and marketing of technology, we lag behind,” says Silveira.

Distinct experiences
Antonio Bonomi, Technological Assessment coordinator at CTBE, in the city of Campinas, warns that the situation in Brazil differs from that of other countries, and that comparing such distinct experiences may be inappropriate. “Our first-generation ethanol is a success case. The second generation, despite its advantages, is not as strategic for us as it is for other countries. For Europe and China, it is the only alternative for large-scale production,“ he says. “Brazilian ethanol plants burn sugarcane bagasse and straw to generate energy, which reduces the costs of ethanol production and further reduces the greenhouse gas emissions of Brazilian ethanol. Using these waste materials to produce cellulosic ethanol will only make sense when it starts to represent even lower costs.” He also emphasizes that ethanol producers resent the industry’s lengthy crisis, making it difficult to get them involved in research networks.  “Brazilian ethanol companies are in a difficult situation, and the politics that froze gasoline prices for a long period of time are not the only culprit. They also suffered productivity losses on account of bad weather and the introduction of mechanized harvesting,” says Bonomi. “Meanwhile, other countries are getting organized to patent and sell second-generation ethanol technologies.”

The study in Scientometrics mapped the most active researchers in terms of scientific production and collaborations. First on the list is Lee Lynd, from the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, who has maintained ties with Brazilian researchers since 2008. As a guest of FAPESP, he has participated in a number of Bioen workshops and events (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 163).

Economist Guilherme de Oliveira Marques, who is currently pursuing a doctorate at Unicamp about the impact of incorporating biotechnology tools in industry, observes that the number of connections that a country establishes with a network is less important than the quality of these contacts. “Participating in scientific networks does not necessarily entail the production of technology. Translating scientific knowledge into technological capability is far from a trivial matter,” he says. In his opinion, being connected to nodes that are more centrally located in a network can create channels for the flow of scientific and technological know-how. “For this, it is necessary to assess the evolution of Brazil’s participation over time. Absorbing, incorporating, and adapting knowledge generated abroad can be an important step in the construction of internal capabilities that would empower Brazil to achieve greater prominence in the future.”

Bioen program organization chart: intellectual property, incentive and evaluation mechanisms, and impacts (No. 2008/58041-6); Grant mechanism Regular Research Grant – Bioen Program – Thematic Project; Principal investigator José Maria Ferreira Jardim da Silveira (Unicamp); Investment R$316,200.13 (CNPq/FAPESP).