Sunday, August 20, 2006


Not necessarily a portable process

Brazil's Road to Energy Independence

Alternative-Fuel Strategy, Rooted in Ethanol From Sugar Cane, Seen as Model

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 20, 2006; A01

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Record oil prices have made the world's energy landscape a darkly foreboding place this year, inhospitable to optimism and celebration. Except in Brazil.

It has been something of a banner year here, full of milestones. The government predicts that for the first time in its history, Brazil will achieve energy equilibrium, exporting as much oil as it imports. The production of sugar cane-based ethanol is expected to reach an all-time high. And just three years after the introduction here of flex-fuel vehicles -- cars that run on either ethanol or gasoline -- several major automakers predict that such vehicles will represent 100 percent of their production by the end of the year, eliminating gas-only models.

Pull up to most service stations in this country of 185 million people and you will find fuel pumps offering three choices: ethanol, gasoline or premium gasoline. The labels are slightly misleading: The gasoline varieties are blends that contain at least 20 percent ethanol. The pure ethanol is usually significantly cheaper -- 53 cents per liter (about $2 per gallon), compared with about 99 cents per liter for gasoline ($3.74 per gallon) in Sao Paulo this past week. . . .

The rapid increase in the use of ethanol already has stretched existing resources thin, and that stress has highlighted environmental threats that represent some of the industry's most daunting challenges. . . .

Recent studies in the United States have suggested that the entire American corn crop would provide enough fuel to replace only about 12 percent of U.S. gasoline demand. To help plug that potential gap, some in the United States have advocated importing ethanol from Brazil. Though Brazil currently provides about 5 percent of U.S. ethanol, a duty of 54 cents per gallon -- a measure designed to protect American farmers -- makes a large-scale trade relationship unlikely.

"We would never be able to supply the United States with any substantial quantity of ethanol," said Carvalho, of the producers union. "But we could offer an equilibrium supply if the consumers in the U.S. had a voice in the matter. But it's the Midwest corn producers that are holding it up."

Comparing sugar cane ethanol with corn-based fuel in terms of the reduction of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases is one that Brazilians such as Carvalho love to make. The ethanol extracted from corn yields only about 15 to 25 percent more fuel than the fossil fuels that were used to produce it. In Brazil, according to industry studies, the sugar-based ethanol yields about 830 percent more.

However, many experts in all aspects of Brazil's industry agree that the future of ethanol resides neither in sugar nor corn, but in cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel that theoretically could be extracted from almost anything from switch grass to scrap paper. The United States is leading research into developing cellulosic technology, and the Energy Department this month announced it was dedicating $250 million for two new research centers dedicated to the cause. . . .

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