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To tackle bottlenecks

São Paulo Bioenergy Research Center hires new researchers to expand bioenergy knowledge base

Bionergia_Foto MontadaFLATICON.COMThe recently created São Paulo Bioenergy Research Center (SPBioenRC), with laboratories at all three universities run by the state of São Paulo, has announced the arrival of 17 new researchers. They were hired to step up the production of bioenergy knowledge in Brazil and to help train human resources in this field. The Center was born from a sharing of investments and responsibilities by three different actors – the state government, the universities, and FAPESP. All three universities committed to hiring new researchers to work at the Center’s laboratories. To date, seven researchers have been admitted by the University of São Paulo (USP), eight by the University of Campinas (Unicamp), and two by São Paulo State University (Unesp). The São Paulo state government provided the universities with funding to build laboratories, make renovations, and purchase equipment for the Center. FAPESP took charge of selecting and funding the bioenergy projects associated with the SPBioenRC (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 168).

According to Glaucia Mendes Souza, a professor at the USP Chemistry Institute (IQ) and member of the Steering Committee for Special Programs – BIOEN Program, the new investigators at the SPBioenRC will address topics and projects that were not getting much attention within the program. “The Center introduces young researchers into a mature collaboration network. The SPBioenRC was established within a context in which various initiatives by BIOEN researchers have been developing important technologies and methodologies. The new researchers will benefit from this. Now it’s their job to form competent research groups and usher in new things,” emphasizes Souza, who helped organize a workshop held at FAPESP headquarters on August 4, 2015, in which some of the new investigators presented their projects. At the end of the workshop, the deputy coordinator of special programs at FAPESP, Professor Luís Cortez from the Agricultural Engineering School (Feagri) at Unicamp, pointed out that SPBioenRC will soon gain an international advisory board, which will include members of BIOEN. “In one or two years, the Center will be quite mature,” he predicts.

Plans for the SPBioenRC began to be discussed in 2009, in response to the challenge of expanding the scientific community’s ability to solve major problems in the field of bioenergy. At the time, a mapping of researchers investigating the topic at the three São Paulo state universities identified 456 faculty members and employees. They were asked about the bottlenecks they faced when trying to make their research and the Brazilian bioenergy industry more competitive.

Biorefineries were among the topics being investigated by only a limited number of researchers. This field of research attempts to encourage the replacement of oil as a primary material by developing chemical inputs and green polymers. One of the new hires at the SPBioenRC, Portuguese researcher Pedro Vidinha, has been tackling this challenge at IQ-USP. The goals of his project include increasing the productivity of carbon dioxide as a raw material used by the chemical industry to produce methanol, an alcohol with many applications that is also used in the production of biodiesel. Meanwhile, at the School of Food Engineering at Unicamp, Marcus Soares Forte is working on a method for pre-treating sugarcane bagasse with ionic liquids, which are considered “green solvents”. In addition to helping improve the efficiency of ethanol production from cellulose, Forte’s research contributes towards the installation of biorefineries, as ionic liquids can selectively solubilize the components of sugarcane bagasse.

Structural and functional genomics are an important field of study when it comes to expanding the productivity of sugarcane. Biologist Tatiane da Franca Silva, from the USP Engineering School of Lorena, is developing a project to identify and characterize the sugarcane genes that are involved in the organization of cellulose microfibrils (short, threadlike fibers), which show a strong potential for biotechnological use in the field of bioenergy. Her goal is to improve the efficiency of the saccharification process, in which the sugars in the fibers are broken down by enzymes. Another new hire, bioinformatics expert Gabriel Rodrigues Alves Margarido, from the Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP), wants to develop algorithms to elucidate the structure and functioning of complex genomes, like that of sugarcane.

Direct planting
Sustainability is also a field of interest at SPBioenRC, with emphasis on topics such as the use of direct planting techniques to reduce the soil compaction caused by mechanized harvesting of sugarcane. At Unicamp’s Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute, Antonio Riul Jr. wants to design devices that can analyze soil characteristics and help growers manage the use of fertilizers and pesticides, lowering the environmental impacts and increasing the productivity of crops like sugarcane. Lucas Rios do Amaral, at the School of Agricultural Engineering of the same university, is studying the application of precision agriculture and geoprocessing concepts to optimize the use of inputs, identify problems that arise during cultivation, and to guide localized treatments. Once again, the focus is on sugarcane, in an effort to increase the crop’s productivity and profitability for the agricultural industry.

Unesp contracted new researchers to work at the Central Laboratory of the Institute for Research in Bioenergy (IPBen), opened in the city of Rio Claro in December 2014. The new staff includes Sandra Maintinguer, a researcher from the Multidisciplinary Center for Research on Fuels, Biofuels, Oil, and Oil Byproducts (Cempeqc), affiliated with Unesp’s Chemistry Institute in the city of Araraquara. She investigates the viability of using liquid effluents from the orange juice industry to produce hydrogen. “The wastewater from citrus companies contains glucose and other carbon sources, like fructose and organic acids, which are necessary for the production of hydrogen gas,” she explains.

The integrated PhD Program in Bioenergy, offered as a joint initiative by the three universities, was developed simultaneously with the SPBioenRC. The program was recognized in 2013 by the Coordinating Agency for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes) and initiated activities in the first half of 2014. Forty-six students took the admission exams in the program’s first year, including nine from other countries. In 2015, 28 students applied, five of them non-Brazilian. A total of 40 students have enrolled since 2014. The program offers courses on topics including biomass production, biofuel manufacturing processes, biorefineries, engines, and socioeconomic and environmental sustainability. “We want to promote the education of world-class human resources in the field of bioenergy who will become professors and researchers and meet the needs of the public and private sectors,” says Carlos Alberto Labate, researcher at ESALQ and member of the panel committee for the PhD program in bioenergy.