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October 19, 2012

Second Generation Ethanol Should be Available in Brazil by 2015

The production of biofuels from corn, vegetable oil, or sugarcane has been criticized by many as one of the causes for rising food prices. To blunt this criticism, biofuel producers and scientists have been working to develop what is called cellulosic ethanol or commonly known as second generation ethanol. This is ethanol produced from cellulose plant material and not potential food products. The president of the Center for Sugarcane Technologies (CTC) located in Piracicaba, Sao Paulo recently announced that commercial quantities of cellulosic ethanol will become available in Brazil by 2015.

The cellulosic ethanol in Brazil will be produced from the plant material left over from sugarcane processing. Much of the sugarcane residue is currently used as fuel in boilers that produce electricity necessary to run the sugarcane mill. In fact, many sugarcane mills produce excess electricity which is then sold back into the electrical grid.

According to CTC, there are two different processes for the conversion of cellulose into ethanol, the C6 process, which breaks down six carbon atom chains into ethanol, and the C5 process that breaks down five carbon atom chains into ethanol. The C6 process will be first onto the market and it should be commercially available in 2015 and the C5 process should be available by 2020.

By incorporating the C6 process into an existing sugarcane mill, approximately 30% more ethanol will be produced from a hectare of sugarcane. When the C5 process is fully integrated, more of the cellulose will be converted to ethanol and that should represent a 50% improvement over the C6 process. When both processes are fully implemented, a hectare of sugarcane will produce 80% to 90% more ethanol than what is currently being produced using only the sucrose from the sugarcane plant.

The CTC is also researching a pre-treatment of the sugarcane with would facilitate the work of the enzymes needed to convert cellulose into fermentable sugars.

The cellulosic ethanol production will piggyback on the existing infrastructure of a sugarcane mill thus lowering the startup and operational costs. At the present time, it would not be viable to build a standalone cellulosic ethanol plant in Brazil, but Brazil does not need to do that since there are hundreds of sugarcane mills already in operation.