Sugarcane supplies calories from human bodies to human CARS. Brazil’s main fuel is not gasoline but the biofuel from sugarcane juice. Its lucrative biofuel industry is gearing up its research to meet its growing needs.
Brazil has a good research record in many areas of science and technology. But, according to Carlos Henriquede Brito Cruz, the Scientific Director of Fapesp, the São Paulo Research Foundation, their main contribution lies in the area of bioenergy.
Brazil is the world’s largest sugar producer. It has been utilizing its large sugarcane reserves in several non-traditional ways which includes its bioconversion/fermentation to ethanol used as motor-fuel since 1975. It had kept its isolation from the world and had used low-cost techniques of fermentation till recent times when it realized the potential of bioethanol if the technology is improved. Thus, Brazil’s federal and state government are directing huge inflow of cash aimed at improving all stages of the bioethanol process, from sugarcane biology to engine efficiency. And the project has become big science as well as big business.
Developed mainly as an energy security measure, Brazil’s bioethanol program has several green credentials which the country is now promoting. The CO2 emission from a sugar ethanol-running automobile is just about 20% of that of a petrol-driven one.
Brazil annually produces about 20 BILLION Liters of sugar-ethanol to fuel its 13 MILLION ‘FLEX’ cars which can run either on pure ethanol or petro-ethanol mix. A Brazilian gas station often distributes four kinds of fuels-petrol, ethanol, biodiesel and natural gas.
The fuel consumption in Brazil grew by 3% to 121.482 billion liters in 2011 compared with 2010, according to the National Agency for Oil, Gas and Biofuels (ANP). In the same period, there was a 5.2% increase in consumption of diesel to 51.782 billion liters. The consumption of gasoline C increased 18.8% to 35.452 billion liters. Taking into account the total consumption of ethanol, anhydrous and hydrated, there was a reduction (13.8%) in consumption, to 19.101 billion liters. The consumption of biodiesel increased by 5.2% in the same comparison to 2.554 billion liters (contributed by Antônio Carlos Duarte Coêlho, Professor, UFPE, Brazil)
With increasing demand-forecasted to increase to 50 Bn Liters per year by 2020-Brazil has started facing shortage which led to its importing alcohol from USA. Now, the bioenergy program is aiming to increase the yield without increasing the allotted farm-area which is 2.9% of the agricultural land and 0.4% of the total land area.
The task is more difficult due to the complexity of the genome of sugarcane, a hybrid of two grass species- Saccharum officinarum and Saccharum spontaneum. Not only the genome is five times the size of human genome, sugarcane has ’DECAPLOID’ nature meaning it has ten different genome sets in every cell, in comparison to the diploids (most animals) which have two. This hampers greatly the speed of gene deciphering. Even attempts to create GM crops have so far failed as introduced genes are quickly silenced or shut down by the plant.
Even then, Brazilian scientists are confident of solving the genetic mysteries of sugarcane in near future. According to the botany researchers of the University of São Paulo, the priority would then be to create more stress-resistant varieties and to change their physiology to utilize most of the metabolic energy into making sugar. They also calculate that by improving the crop and the cultivation methods, the annual per hectare sugarcane yield can be multiplied from the present yield of 84 tonnes to almost 380 tonnes (more than four times).
Let us wait and watch their dreams come true, and learn from their initiative.
See the next article containing an interview with a Professor and experienced professional of Brazil’s biofuel industry: http://scienceray.com/biology/brazils-biofuel-history-and-present/
For the links to my other articles and works…visit my website..http://aninditajroy.wordpress.com
‘A Tank of Sugar: How Brazil runs on biofuel’
By Clive Cookson from São Paulo.
FT magazine (April 28,2012)
Sugar cane residue can be used as a biofuel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)