By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – Ethanol made from sugar cane waste is set to arrive at gas stations across Brazil in 2014, in what is being dubbed the most promising development in biofuel technology in recent years. The process is now taking off as a serious alternative to extending sugar cane plantations, which would otherwise be required to meet rising demands, Folha de S.Paulo newspaper reports.
Previously, after sugar cane juice was extracted to make regular ethanol, the fibrous, inedible cane stalk matter – known as bagasse – was burned to produce electricity. Now an enzyme is used to extract sugar locked in the bagasse to produce second-generation, cellulosic ethanol.
The technique means a cane plantation could yield 30-50 percent more ethanol than before and, as a result, the price of ethanol in Brazil should decrease. However, consumption is set to increase, some say by as much as 45 percent by 2020.
Cellulosic ethanol was prohibitively expensive to produce, representing a barrier to initial investment, but the government and a number of companies are now pumping money into the burgeoning sector.
Founded in 2011, GraalBio has announced its first cellulosic ethanol plant will open in Alagoas in 2014, with a second planned for São Paulo state. In January, Brazil’s National Development Bank (BNDES) bought a fifteen-percent stake in the company, apparently showing its confidence in the new market.
Brazilian companies have forged partnerships with foreign enterprises that are also looking to take advantage of the industry, bringing outside investment, know-how and technology.
GraalBio has partnered with Italy’s Mossi & Ghisolfi, Raízen has joined forces with Canadian technology firm Iogen to open its first refinery by late 2014, and ETH Bioenergia has announced a partnership with Denmark’s Inbicon. Petrobras has developed its own technology, which it showcased during Rio+20 last year, and hopes to begin regular deliveries of second-generation in 2015.
Marcel Gomes, coordinator at the Biofuel Watch Center, tells the Rio Times that cellulosic ethanol reduces crop displacement and allows production to be increased without the need for new land:
“Change in land use is detrimental to the environment in Brazil. Classically, cane has pushed out cereal fields, which has pushed cattle out toward the Amazon, leading to deforestation. However, cellulosic ethanol plants do not necessarily change the problems that already exist […] such as issues relating to labor, indigenous land or even irregular pesticides use.”
Jeffrey Hollender, a leading authority on corporate responsibility, sustainability and social equity, tells The Rio Times that ethanol from sugar cane is environmentally superior to ethanol made from corn, as in the U.S., and is a step in the right direction.
Yet he believes Brazilians will only fill up with second-generation ethanol if the price is right. Other industry experts concur ethanol will rise in popularity as gasoline prices rise, but say the choice is more complex – as although ethanol is cheaper – drivers are aware it provides fewer miles to the gallon.
Brazilian cars are “flex fuel” – running on ethanol, gasoline or a mixture of the two, making decisions on which to use depending purely on price. Brazil also remains the world’s second largest producer of ethanol fuel, after the United States.