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The power of collaboration

International conference discusses technology and public policies for the production of ethanol

The acknowledgement of Brazilian development in the production of ethanol from sugarcane, and the discussions and prospects for extracting this fuel from sugarcane bagasse and from other types of biomass underscored the debates on science and technology at the International Conference on Biofuels, held in São Paulo, in November. Organized by the Ministry of Foreign Relations, the event presented a consensus regarding the need for more research and innovation in order to improve the first generation of ethanol, produced by fermenting and distilling sugarcane or corn. The second generation of biofuels, for which several possible technological paths have been suggested regarding the extraction of alcohol from bagasse or from other types of cellulose biomass, should still take a few years to become commercial.

“There is a tendency to believe that the second generation will be better than the first, although it is turning out to be more complicated. We must still improve the first generation substantially,” said Professor Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director, during the special session on “The role of scientific research in the area of biofuels,” coordinated by ABC, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. “Sugarcane mills still don?t use genomics, for instance, to improve the productivity of plantations.” According to Brito Cruz, the second generation of biofuels may be useful for Brazil, but will be even more important for countries that do not enjoy the same sort of climate and territory.

Richard Murphy, a bioenergy expert from Imperial College, London, in England, who works with fungi that degrade cellulose, said that the important thing is for the solutions found to be based on sustainable processes, and for them to help cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. “We are studying the first and second generations, but we already know that the first depends on the soil’s yield per hectare (ha), taking into account the climate,” said Murphy. “The UK’s wheat production, for instance – in connection with which an ethanol plant was recently opened, using the part of the cereal that would become animal feed – is 700 tons/ha, whereas in East Africa it is 1 ton/ha and in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan it is 3.5 ton/ha. So one must improve the agricultural and infrastructure conditions in order to increase yield as necessary.”

According to Murphy, one cannot yet discard any experience because the data still refers to a few years only. He mentions the example of corn in the USA. “According to the information I have from the states of Iowa and Nebraska, the levels of CO2 dropped 50% in relation to using fossil fuels. It’s a major change.” For Brito Cruz, each country must select the most appropriate raw material for its agriculture, where biofuel production is concerned.

Another person attending the conference, which brought together delegations from 92 countries, was Mohamed Hag Ali Hassan, a Sudanese that chairs the African Academy of Sciences and is the executive director of TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World. He said it is up to science and technology to help to develop cultures for biofuels that do not compete with food. “In Africa, there are many degraded areas that could be used to produce ethanol,” said Hassan. However, the implementation of new areas goes through public policies. “Many politicians thirst for correct information about what can be done to produce biofuel without harming the environment,” recalled Murphy. “We need to help the policy administrators to better understand our options in this area,” he said. For Hassan, each government must have clear policies for biomass fuels and the academies of science should collaborate in this respect.

To date, only the Brazilian experience with ethanol production is well known, according to Hassan. “We need to look at other countries and expand what we know in global terms.” After attending Brito Cruz’s talk on scientific research in São Paulo – from the sequencing of the express genes of the sugarcane genome (Sucest), which began in 1999, to Bioen, FAPESP’s recent Bioenergy Research Program, besides the figures on Brazilian ethanol production – Hassan congratulated him on São Paulo State’s successful research and development experience and suggested the creation of an international center for research into biofuels in Brazil. “It would be not only to train Brazilians, but also scientists and policy-makers from Africa, for example. It would be an opportunity for us to take part in this transformation,” said Hassan (read the interview in the next page).

The next day, during the conference on “Biofuels and innovation: research and development, first and second generation biofuels; opportunities for science and technology,” Hassan once again discussed Brito Cruz’s talk and the suggestion of forming an international center of excellence for biofuels in Brazil, with FAPESP’s participation. “It was fascinating to see what is being done here,” said Hassan. He also resumed the subject of the role of science academies in advising governments, showing the pros and cons of everything that concerns non-fossil fuels, from planting to production.

Professor José Goldemberg, a researcher from the National Biomass Reference Center of the Energy and Electrotechnics Institute at the University of São Paulo (IEE/USP) and the coordinator of the São Paulo State Bioenergy Commission, said that a biofuel research center is being created in this state and that it should bring together three major São Paulo universities – USP, Unicamp and Unesp – with funds that are expected to reach US$100 million. “This center in São Paulo may become part of this international institute suggested by Professor Hassan. We will be able to develop technology of interest to everyone,” said Goldemberg. He also mentioned the hopes for a second generation of biofuels. “Everybody has the dream of making ethanol with bagasse, which is a sucrose polymer; the problem is breaking down the polymer and extracting the sucrose. I believe that one technology that may yield good results is gasification of the biomass.” This process concerns the transformation into gas of any type of biomass, from bagasse and sugarcane straw (read article on page 94) to the residues of rice, soy and other agricultural products. “These gases are even used to produce diesel.”

According to Helena Chum, a Brazilian chemist who has lived in the United States for 30 years and who is currently a researcher at NREL – National Renewable Energy Laboratory, countries must make an effort to compare the analytical results, indices and costs of biofuel production for all processes. “It’s necessary to have a collaboration system, if we are to transform biofuels into commodities, and to establish an exchange of researchers for the characterization of these products,” said Helena.