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April 18, 2012

Researchers Confident Cellulosic Ethanol Possible Within 5 Years

The question of using a food crop such as corn or sugarcane to produce fuel continues to be debated, but one of the ways to avoid the dilemma of food vs. fuel is to use a non-food raw material to make the ethanol. Such raw materials could include such things as: grasses, woody plants, crop residue, or even garbage. Ethanol made from such sources is classified as second generation ethanol or cellulosic ethanol.

In Brazil, cellulosic ethanol is already being produced in laboratories using the residue left over from processing sugarcane as well as the crop residue left in the field after the sugarcane is harvested. Researchers in Brazil feel that within five years they will have an industrial scale plant up and running producing cellulosic ethanol and that within ten years, cellulosic ethanol will be blended with conventionally produced ethanol and be sold in the service stations of Brazil.

Researchers at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro feel that with improvements in technology, Brazil could double its ethanol production without having to increase the existing sugarcane acreage just by using the plant residue from sugarcane processing as well as the crop residue from the sugarcane, corn, and wheat fields of Brazil.

In addition to the obvious environmental benefits of using ethanol vs. petroleum such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions, there are also economic benefits as well such as: the low cost of biomass materials, limited need for increased infrastructure to transport the biomass material, the infrastructure is already in place for processing and distributing ethanol, reduced completion with the production of sugar, increased rural employment, and improved overall health of the population due to improved air quality and less chances of groundwater pollution from leaking underground gasoline storage tanks.

Currently, cellulosic ethanol is more expensive that conventional ethanol primarily due to the high cost of the enzymes used to bread down the cellulose into its various sugars, but the cost is expected to decline with the discovery of new and more efficient enzymes.

In order to find those new enzymes, researchers are exploring the various micro-organisms that are found in soil of the Amazon Forest which are responsible for breaking down leaves, branches, fruit, and even entire logs of tress lying on the forest floor. They are also looking inside the digestive track of goats for organisms capable of breaking down various types of food sources.

The research is a collaborative effort of many organizations including: the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the National Council for Science and Technology CNPq), the Research Foundation of the State of Sao Paulo (Fapesp), the Research Foundation of the state of Rio de Janeiro (Faperj), and the National Development Bank (BNDES).