Brazil - A Bio-Energy Superpower
By Mario Osava*
of fuel alcohol produced from sugarcane, a renewable energy source,
will be worth two billion dollars in 2004, an increase of almost
300 percent over last year.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Rising oil prices and the
upcoming implementation of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases,
following the recent ratification by Russia, are accelerating the
process by which Brazil is confirming its position as a world leader
Exports of alcohol made from sugarcane are expected to increase
from 800 million liters last year to two billion liters this year,
and the expansion trend is maintained independently of world oil
There are many countries, like Japan, that are moving to blend ethanol
with gasoline, or increase the alcohol additives in fuel, as a means
towards curbing air pollution.
It augurs for renewable energy sources having a strong global impulse
with the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets goals
for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, responsible for climate
The Russian Senate announced its ratification of the global treaty
Oct. 27. Once it is signed by the Russian president, the Kyoto Protocol
will enter into force, as it has finally achieved the required threshold
of countries: a total that produces at least 55 percent of the world's
In Brazil, renewable fuel is recuperating the popularity it had
in the 1980s, and not just because of the lower price. There is
a growing demand for ''bi-fuel'' automobiles that can use gasoline,
fuel alcohol or any mix of the two. These cars were put on the market
In 1985 and 1986, alcohol-fuelled vehicles had achieved the incredible
proportion of 76 percent of all of Brazil's car production. But
supply and price problems eroded the Proalcohol program for fuel
substitution, begun with the petroleum crisis of 1973.
Output of alcohol-driven cars hit bottom in 1997 -- just 0.06 percent
of total car production, according to Brazil's National Association
of Automotive Manufacturers.
Since then there has been a gradual recovery, which was particularly
notable last year, with 84,173 alcohol-fuelled cars, including the
bi-fuel vehicles, represented 4.6 of automotive production. This
year that portion is expected to be five times as big, as 253,817
such cars were produced from January through September.
The possibility of using one fuel or another, along with the reasonable
price, contributes to public confidence in alcohol as a fuel in
general. It reduces the risk of shortages or sudden price hikes
at service stations.
In addition, all gasoline in Brazil contains 20 to 25 percent anhydrous
alcohol, which reduces petroleum dependency and pollution. And work
is beginning on manufacturing crop spraying aircraft that run on
The subsidized development of Proalcohol cost some 40 billion dollars,
but the country has ''already recovered those expenses'' and is
now seeing its fruits, including the continued development of related
technology, Osvaldo Stella Martins, an expert with the National
Center for Biomass Research, told Tierramérica.
The sugarcane needed to make Brazil the world leader in sugar and
alcohol production also generates enormous quantities of waste pulp,
a source of energy that feeds the electricity market as well as
running the sugar mills and distilleries.
Now the new biodiesel program is motivating researchers and business
leaders. The government announced that it will authorize its addition
to regular diesel fuel in November, in a proportion of two percent
and increasing to five percent over the next few years.
Beyond reducing the need to import fuel and curbing environmentally
harmful emissions, the program is intended to be socially inclusive,
generating hundreds of thousands of jobs and promoting family farming
in impoverished areas, says Science and Technology Minister Eduardo
It is also a government priority to promote production of fuel using
the castorbean (Ricinus communis) in the Brazilian northeast, the
country's poorest region. But biodiesel made from castorbeans must
be more heavily subsidized, as it costs three times more than petroleum,
said Stella, a mechanical engineer who holds a doctorate in ecology
and natural resources.
Castor oil, the raw material for hundreds of chemical, medicinal
and cosmetic products, has great unsatisfied global demand, and
it would be more logical to promote its production as an industrial
input, instead of using it for biodiesel and burdening society with
the cost of subsidies in order to ''resolve a problem for Petrobras,''
the giant state-run oil company, he said.
The problem is that Petrobras must produce diesel without sulfur,
for environmental protection reasons, and it would be better to
substitute that lubricant with biodiesel, transferring costs to
society, explained the expert.
Studies are under way for producing biodiesel using other plant
sources, and even from the vegetable oil waste in cities, such as
from food processing and restaurant cooking.
The alternative that most excites Stella and forestry engineer Laercio
Couto, president of the National Network for Biomass Energy, is
to make use of agricultural and forestry waste.
Lumber production uses 45 percent of the tree, leaving ''incredible''
biomass sources, Couto told Tierramérica.
The lumber waste is packed into cylinders to reduce volume and humidity,
and to facilitate transport, and is exports to Europe are beginning.
But last year just 40,000 tons were sold, while the demand reaches
two million tons, the engineer added.
Brazil, with its land, sun, and water resources, is a major producer
of biomass, and the process of photosynthesis makes the South American
country an energy superpower, according to José Bautista Vidal,
the ''father'' of Proalcohol.
However, the great distances and insufficient infrastructure that
make transportation expensive continue to create obstacles in the
energy business beyond local production and use, Couto said.