May 26, 2011

Producers Worried Brazil Lags in Cellulosic Ethanol Research

Author: Michael Cordonnier/Soybean & Corn Advisor, Inc.

Brazilian ethanol producers are worried that they may be falling behind in cellulosic ethanol research. After leading the way in developing an ethanol industry based on sugarcane production, Brazilian producers are now worried that other countries such as the United States and countries in Europe are making bigger strides in cellulosic ethanol production.

Since the 1970's the research focus in Brazil has been on increasing the ethanol production from the juice of sugarcane while leaving largely untapped the potential of producing ethanol from the sugarcane residue. Much of the sugarcane residue in Brazil, which includes the stalks and the leaves, is either burned to generate electricity to run the mill or it is left in the field. If the entire residue could be used to produce cellulosic ethanol, estimates are that ethanol production per hectare in Brazil could increase up to 40%.

Industry officials are quick to point out that advances in cellulosic ethanol production have been made in recent years, but much more needs to be done. According to the Union of Sugarcane Industries (Unica), in 2006 cellulosic ethanol costs nine or ten times more to produce than ethanol produced from sugarcane. That cost has now dropped to 1.8 times as much, still too high, but progress has been made. The National Council for Science and Technology is currently financing 200 projects in the area of biofuels including cellulosic ethanol production. Industry officials now feel that it is time to build a large scale cellulosic ethanol plant to see if costs can be driven down even further.

Researchers from Embrapa feel that sugarcane residue would be ideal for cellulosic ethanol production because the raw material already exists at the mill and the infrastructure needed to process the residue is also available. In contrast, proposed cellulosic ethanol production in the United States or Europe would entail creating an entire new industry including new crops (possibly high-yielding grasses), transportation facilities, and processing facilities. Researchers feel further advances could be realized with an influx of foreign capital.

Scientists feel that rapid advances could be made if more resources were available for research. In fact, Petrobras is expected to greatly increase their participation in the Brazilian biofuel sector. A subsidiary of Petrobras, called Petrobras Biofuels, has taken a stake in ten sugar/ethanol mills in Brazil. The current production capacity of these ten mills is 942 million liters of ethanol per year, but plans are to expand that production to 2.6 billion liters by 2014.