August 5, 2013

Sweet Potatoes used to Produce Ethanol in Brazil

Brazil is justifiably famous for its expansive fields of sugarcane and its hundreds of sugar mills that process millions of tons of sugarcane into ethanol and sugar, but in the far reaches of Mato Grosso, ethanol is being produced from a completely different raw material - sweet potatoes.

The first of its kind sweet potato ethanol mill is located in the city of Tangara do Serra in western Mato Grosso. The mill was recently visited by 20 scientists from the Federal University of Tocantins and state politicians to study if this technology could be used in other parts of the country. The sweet potato ethanol mill is being operated by a company called Aldo Biodiesel which claims that their sweet potato ethanol is the cheapest ethanol in the world to produce.

The company claims that there are many advantages to using sweet potatoes to make ethanol. First of all, sweet potatoes are renewable and they can be grown in marginal areas where the soil fertility is relatively low. The cost of production for sweet potatoes is quite low and the crop requires little chemical use or advanced technology. The residue left over from the production of ethanol can be used as animal feed. And maybe most importantly, sweet potatoes can be grown by small family farmers without the aid of expensive machinery.

The fact that small family farmers can grow the raw material is a key factor for Ezequiel Fonseca, who was the state politician behind the project. He is now pushing a proposal to create a "Social Ethanol" seal of approval for sustainably produced ethanol. The program would award its seal of approval to ethanol mills that are sustainable and socially beneficial because they use products produced by small family farmers. He feels these types of mills would increase rural employment and incomes while at the same time reducing the cost of ethanol for consumers.

The use of sweet potatoes to produce ethanol could be adapted in many other areas of Brazil where the native fertility of the soil is low and there is a ponderous of small family farms.