Now, Brazil hopes to tap into a new biofuel source: second-generation ethanol, produced from the tough cellulose in plant stalks. Cellulose is difficult to break down and ferment, but several facilities in the United States are on the verge of making commercial cellulosic ethanol — for example, by using specialist enzymes to break down the long-chain cellulose molecules — and Brazil doesn’t want to be left behind.
In December last year, the Brazilian Development Bank launched a 1-billion-real (US$481-million) credit line to stimulate research and development in cellulosic biofuels and other advanced sugar-cane technologies. The Center for Sugarcane Technology, an industry-sponsored organization based in São Paulo, has taken up a 357-million-real loan to build a cellulosic ethanol plant next year, which would use waste plant matter from conventional sugar-cane fermentation. “We can double fuel yield per hectare when the technology is mature”, says Oswaldo Godoy, a project manager at the organization.
The Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (EMBRAPA) is also throwing its weight behind bioenergy. Its president, Maurício Lopes, a geneticist who took office in October, has promised to build up research on biomass technology and double EMBRAPA’s funding for that area, which today stands at a modest 24 million real per year. “I want to believe that the current state of the ethanol sector is a temporary blip,” he says. Lopes says that Brazil will be “unbeatable” once cellulosic technology matures. “No other country has the logistics we have in place, or the number of different species we can derive ethanol from.”
But cellulosic ethanol won’t be a quick fix, says Horta. “Nothing shall compete with conventional sugar-cane ethanol until 2050.”