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Sustainable solutions

Experts from several countries meet to discuss the future of biofuels

EDUARDO CESARResearchers from several countries are to meet in five places around the planet – Malaysia, South Africa, Brazil, the United States and Holland – to discuss the viability of large-scale, worldwide production of biofuels and to seek a scientific consensus about this issue. On the agenda of the debates, which are to begin at the end of this year and extend to mid-2010, there are mandatory topics, such as the technological challenges involved in obtaining ethanol from cellulose at competitive prices, the possibility of replicating the successful case of Brazil’s sugarcane ethanol in other countries and the fear that competition from biofuels might jeopardize the growing of other crops. “Most of the analyses involving energy from biomass have taken into account economic variables that have already been established. None has explored, in detail and on a global scale, what might be achieved through changes designed to encourage the coexistence of food production and biofuels,” says Lee Lynd, an engineering professor from Dartmouth College, one of the program’s leaders and a student of cellulosic ethanol since 1987. “Though there is still a natural reluctance to accept changes, we must make an effort in this direction, because the future of mankind will not be safe and sustainable under the current practices,” he states.

Alternatives capable of multiplying sustainable energy production from biomass are to be discussed, including making use of degraded land and even of pastures, besides an increase in the efficiency of energy conversion processes. In addition to Lee Lynd, the committee comprises the project’s director, Tom Richard, professor of agricultural engineering and director of the Pennsylvania State Energy and Environment Institutes, and Nathanael Greene, renewable energies policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization. There are two Brazilian representatives in this group: physicists José Goldemberg, who was president of the University of São Paulo (USP) from 1986 and 1990 and who pioneered studies about the sustainability of sugarcane ethanol, and Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director.

The project’s first stage will be carried out at meetings in the five countries. The opening meeting is to be held in November in Malaysia. The others will take place from February to May 2010. Among the scientific studies that will provide input at the debates, there are two Brazilian articles. One of these, by José Roberto Moreira, a professor at USP, concerns the potential of the energy extracted from biomass for climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. The second, by Unicamp physicist Rogério Cerqueira Leite, shows that Brazil could supply sufficient ethanol to replace 5% of the world’s consumption of gasoline by 2025, regardless of any future technological progress, using only 7% of the country’s currently available agricultural areas.

In the second stage, the researchers will pore over the following issue: will it be physically possible to fulfill global demand for mobility and power generation from vegetable sources without jeopardizing the needs of the global society, such as the nourishment of humans, the conservation of nature and the maintenance of the quality of the environment? The project’s third stage will analyze the implementation of technical, social, economic, political and ethical issues, in order to develop strategies for transitioning to a responsible sustainable society.

The study is important for Brazil, because it provides an opportunity to discuss the scientific evidence about the viability of producing biofuels on a large scale, both sugarcane ethanol, which is led by Brazil globally, and cellulosic ethanol, which may put other countries on the map for this type of fuel consumption. “There is legitimate doubt about the capacity to reproduce in other countries our successful replacement of petroleum by biofuels”, states Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, from FAPESP. Physicist José Goldemberg reminds us that, in the case of Brazil and certain African countries, sugarcane ethanol is largely viable. “Besides having a highly favorable energy balance, diminishing the emissions of greenhouse gases by 80%, the production of sugarcane can be expanded into degraded soil both in Brazil and in Africa, without cutting down forests or doing away with other crops. However, this is not the case of the United States, which has no more land available”, explains the former head of USP. Brazilian alcohol has advantages relative to ethanol from other plants, such as corn and beetroot, both in terms of productivity and of the power-generating capacity of its residues.

In the last few years, public and private investment in biofuel research has grown, but concerns about the convenience of promoting large-scale production have also risen, because of the alleged risks to food security. At the beginning of this decade, the United States invested heavily in the production of corn ethanol, becoming its largest producer. The American strategy, however, is under severe questioning, given the substantial subsidies granted to producers and, mainly, the pressure on corn prices. This has strongly hurt Mexico, which depends on the importation of American grain. Concern in the US also extends to the sustainability of sugarcane ethanol production. The state of California, for instance, in connection with the ethanol energy balance, demands that the total lifecycle of sugarcane be taken into account, including the removal of native forests, even if it occurred a long time ago and if the woodlands were replaced by other cultivars before being planted with sugarcane.

The alleged threat to food security has encouraged investments in the so-called second generation ethanol, derived from cellulose. The technology is yet to become financially viable, but is considered fundamental for the use of ethanol to become widespread, as it allows one to obtain fuel from several types of vegetable raw materials, including forest waste. “Getting ethanol from cellulose is far more complicated than from sugarcane. It’s a process that depends on a chemical reaction, hydrolysis, and there are many groups working on this. At the meetings, we’ll have the opportunity to learn, in depth, about what other countries are doing,” says José Goldemberg.

The initial idea of the group led by Lee Lynd was to debate the future of cellulosic ethanol. The researchers had already carried out a study by the organization that Nathanael Greene presides over regarding the United States, but they concluded that it would be good to draw contributions from other countries. “The project would not become successful nor have credibility without experts from several parts of the world. As Brazil is at the center of the debate about biofuels and food security, its researchers’ participation is fundamental,” stated Greene. The program’s scope was expanded when physicist Goldemberg was invited to take part in the discussions. “I told them that first-generation sugarcane ethanol should also be studied, because technological advances are enabling production expansion in Brazil and in several countries, and they agreed,” said Goldemberg. According to him, it is significant that the Brazilian researchers were invited to take part in the discussion. “We didn’t look for them, they looked for us. This is a piece of evidence indicating that we have become players in this discussion and that there’s interest in learning about the Brazilian case,” he stated.

Lee Lynd considers Brazil’s ethanol experience inspiring. “Sugarcane ethanol is recognized for its combination of low greenhouse gases emissions, high yield and modest impact on water pollution, as compared to other biofuels,” said Lynd. “The sugarcane ethanol production experience that has been acquired is as important as the emerging technologies for production of biofuels from lignocellulose. Sugarcane bagasse is a starting point for these technologies, but there are also other cultivars with conversion potential that can be grown in temperate climates,” he stated.

Brito Cruz states that the broad scale adoption of ethanol depends on the capacity of other countries to produce a significant proportion of the fuel that they are going to use. “We should not be naïve and suppose that other countries will embrace bioethanol to then become heavily dependent on foreign suppliers,” he states. “If a lot of countries produce 80% of their needs and import 20%, this will already be a great thing for Brazil. But is it feasible? How? One cannot plant sugarcane just anywhere. All of this depends on discovering new technologies and new inputs, and the chief one is converting cellulose into ethanol,” he says.