Brazil: Leader in biofuels

Pioneerism and competence make Brazil a leader in biofuel technology.

By Lúcio Mesquita*


Brazil is the pioneer and has a strong grasp of biofuel technology, but it still needs to find a formula to prevent its sugar cane ethanol from falling in the same trap as other Brazilian agricultural products.

It’s impossible to deny that the history of alcohol for fuel, or ethanol, in Brazil is a great success. Of course many Brazilians witnessed the technological and political bumps that the ethanol program had to deal with over the years. But most of those challenges have a historical explanation: while E10 or E85 are all the talk in North America today, in Brazil, there were vehicles running with E100 as early as in the 1980’s!

Those E10, E85 or E100 classifications refer to the amount of ethanol mixed into the gasoline. An E10 fuel has 90 per cent gasoline and 10 per cent ethanol, while E100 is a fuel made of 100 per cent ethanol. In other words, it’s been a long time since Brazil has had cars powered by a 100 per cent ethanol fuel.

However, this pioneerism was not without problems. Drivers suffered with cars that would not start up on cold days, with corroded fuel tanks, and even with a dreadful shortage of ethanol in Brazilian gas stations. The latter caused a crisis that seemed to point to the end of the Brazilian alcohol program, or PROÁLCOOL.

Who could imagine that this disastrous situation could change so much? Under the threat of constant increases in oil prices, with the development of “Flex Fuel Cars” – vehicles that run with any mix of ethanol and gasoline — and with the growing concern about greenhouse gas emissions, the ethanol program was reinvigorated in the country. And it triggered a great hope for good business.

Sugar cane and corn 

Brazil and the United States are the biggest producers of ethanol for fuel. In 2005, they pumped into the market 16 billion litres each, while Canada, in the same period, reached 230 million litres. But there is a huge difference between the Brazilian and the North American product. In Brazil, ethanol is made from sugar cane, while corn is the raw material most commonly used in the US.

The production costs of sugar cane ethanol are almost 40 per cent cheaper than its corn rival. The Brazilian product also uses nearly three times less land per litre of fuel produced, and much less energy than the US version. Indeed, the amount of energy used in the production of corn ethanol is something of a permanent scientific debate. Some research even concluded that it’s a serious case of energy loss: more energy is spent to plant and process the corn than what it yields when the ethanol is eventually used.

But to be fair, most studies about sugar cane ethanol ignore the burning of the crops as part of the harvesting process. And people living around those fields know exactly how pollutant that practice is.

Despite all debate, the use of ethanol is a growing trend. In 2006, the Canadian government decided to increase the amount of ethanol in gasoline from 1 to 5 per cent by 2010. The provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan preferred not to wait. By 2007, they already had mandatory 5 and 7.5 percentages, respectively.

A true advantage?

Brazil might benefit from the rise of ethanol percentage in the North American fuel, but that will depend on the lobby of local farmers and producers. The United States, for instance, has a tariff of about 14 cents per liter for all imported ethanol. This is enough to protect the American ethanol producing companies, as well as all corn farmers, who are already the recipients of rich subsidies.

So while discussions about the environmental benefits of ethanol go on, Brazil keeps trying to place itself in a privileged position in a likely race for renewable fuels, or biofuels. The big question, however, is if Brazilian agriculture will really be able to make the most of this strategic advantage. The history of other agricultural products, like sugar, cocoa and coffee shows that most of the profits fall in the hands of companies in developed nations.

*Lúcio Mesquita is an engineer and PhD in mechanical engineering.


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