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The ethanol race

FAPESP and Oxiteno invite researchers to look for solutions that will reduce alcohol costs

FAPESP and the company Oxiteno, one of the largest chemical companies in the country, launched a public tender concerning proposals for research projects in the technology area for the production of sugar, alcohol and their derivatives. The object is to involve researchers from São Paulo institutions to search for technological solutions that will help to reduce the production costs of alcohol fuel, namely ethanol. Oxiteno, a company of the Ultra Group, has an interest in producing chemical products with competitive prices making use of natural materials such as alcohol and sugar. Today the production cost using synthetic raw materials is cheaper. “Our expectation is that the academic community will respond rapidly and emphatically to this important partnership for the development of an area fundamental to the Brazilian economy”, says Pedro Wongtschowski, the superintendent director of Oxiteno. “By way of this partnership with FAPESP, we intend to transform good ideas into innovations, technologies and products of elevated importance.”

Thirty five percent (35%) of ethanol manufactured in the world comes from Brazil and of this 35% some 60% is made in the State of São Paulo. In 2005, for the first time, the United States drew with Brazil in production world leadership, both with 16 billion liters of alcohol. While the North American ethanol, extracted from corn, is strongly subsidized by the government, the Brazilian product, obtained by way of the sugarcane, is the cheapest in the world. In the technological race to guarantee leadership, one of the challenges is to mange to amplify even more the productivity from the sugarcane without having to excessively increase the area of planted lands. Only one third of the plant’s biomass, the sucrose extracted from the sugarcane, transforms itself into ethanol. The other two thirds, composed of bagasse and straw, are thrown away or burned. One of the tasks that will be confronted by the São Paulo researchers is a search for solutions that make use of these disposable by-products. For FAPESP, the program is important because it is linked to a product of fundamental economic importance to the economy of the state of São Paulo and of Brazil.

One of the Foundation’s objectives is to stimulate the work of researchers involved in ethanol studies and also to attract to this line of investigation top class researchers, today dedicated to other interests. “New technologies, especially in the area of hydrolysis, which is the conversion of cellulose into ethanol, are an important focal point of research in other countries”, says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director. “And it’s important to underline that we’re dealing with an association to a company such as Oxiteno, which itself has strong research activity and a culture that values this area.”

Some R$ 6 million will be invested, half put up by Oxiteno and the other half by FAPESP and the National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES). The researchers must remit their pre-projects by the 5th of January 2007. Their proposals must fit into one of the 16 thematic areas of research described in the public tender. Oxiteno will make a preliminary evaluation of the proposals, selecting those that combine better with the company’s propositions. In a second phase, the coordinators of the proposals selected during the first phase must present a complete version of their project, which will be evaluated by ad hoc advisors and FAPESP’s guidelines, following the rules for the Technology Innovation Program (PITE). “This is a major contribution that FAPESP can give to the program, which is to make use of its experience in the evaluation of projects in order to guarantee the quality of the selected proposals”, says Brito Cruz.