High Tech Biofuels
The State of S. Paulo
By Media Lab Estadão
Innovations such as cellulosic ethanol and green biodiesel gain commercial scale
After ethanol and biodiesel, considered first generation biofuels, the global wave of reduction of gas and pollutant emissions is leveraging new types of products in the sector. They are more environmentally correct energy sources that, day by day, gain more space and commercial scale.
These new types of biofuel, the so-called second generation, are part of the modern concept of circular economy, which provides for the reuse, recovery and recycling of materials generated by the manufacturing industry. In the case of ethanol, for example, the production leftovers are bagasse, which today is also used to generate electricity and biogas, and straw, once completely abandoned in the countryside.
It was from research with this discarded biomass that second-generation ethanol (E2G) emerged. The plants produce the new fuel through a process called hydrolysis, which liquefies the vegetable fibers using acids or enzymes. As a result, it is possible to obtain up to 50% more ethanol with the same amount of processed sugarcane. Results that ratify the Brazilian tradition of research and innovation in the sector. Because of all the advances in studies with ethanol for decades, Brazil currently has 71.4% of the fleet of flex-fuel cars. Since the mixture of pure biodiesel with diesel oil (currently at 13%) has been mandatory in the country since 2008.
Bernardo Gradin, president of the biotechnology company GranBio, highlights the sector's tremendous productive potential. “Of the 650 million tons of sugarcane harvested every year, between 10% and 15% is straw. If we use only half of this straw that rots in the field (and releases methane gas), we can transform it into 20 million tons of E2G, which is 25 billion liters”, he calculates. The current capacity of the GranBio unit in São Miguel dos Campos (AL) is 30 million liters per year and last year the company reached 8 million liters produced.
Earlier, more optimistic projections were revised because the global political situation had changed since the early 2010s. At that time, oil prices were around US$110 per barrel and the United States had a strong pro-sustainability policy. Experts claim that now global hopes are renewed both by the end of the Trump doctrine in favor of fossil fuels and by the demands for reducing emissions after the Paris Agreement. Europe and China, for example, will have to meet challenging mandates to blend biofuels in their gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Second-generation ethanol can also have other purposes. Since 2019, O Boticário has signed a contract with Raízen, which produces E2G in Piracicaba, to use the product to replace anhydrous alcohol in the manufacture of a line of cosmetics, which even has a special seal. “In addition to its use in industrial applications and as fuel for transportation, cellulosic ethanol can be used to produce biochemicals, bioplastics and green hydrogen”, says Raphaella Gomes, director of Energy Transition at Raízen.
Genetic breakthroughs create the 'supercane'
Genetic improvements carried out in recent years in sugarcane have generated plant varieties that have become the great bet of the cellulosic ethanol industry to ensure better use and productivity. Energy cane, also called “supercane” by some, differs from the original version by having a higher fiber content per hectare and lower sugar content, which makes it essential for the advancement of second-generation biofuel.
Bernardo Gradin, president of GranBio, reveals that the company has already patented and is producing its versions obtained from the combination of ancestral canes, the Cana-Vertix. “It produces 2.5 times more than sugarcane,” he says.
Among the advantages of this variety is the possibility of planting it in areas of low agricultural potential, as energy cane requires much less water and nutrient consumption. According to GranBio, it is possible to take advantage of, for example, part of the 32 million hectares of pasture currently degraded.
In the biodiesel sector, a bet on the future is the commercial exploration in South America of pongamia, an oilseed tree of Australian origin. The ECB Group signed a long-term contract with Dutch research company Invencia in February to supply oil from this plant. The raw material will be used in the Omega Green project in Paraguay.
Pogamia, in addition to its commercial use, is considered highly sustainable and adaptable and is very efficient at removing carbon. And the resulting bran can also be used as animal feed. “It is a legume that does not need fertilizers, can live up to 100 years and will be used for reforestation of degraded areas, favoring livestock”, says Erasmo Carlos Battistella, president of BSBios and Aprobio. (RL)