The biofuel that powers more than 10 million cars.


Started as a way to reduce oil dependence in a decade threatened by the first oil crisis and its resulting oil shortages, after 35 years the commercial production of sugar cane ethanol fuel has brought Brazil to the forefront of the battle against climate change.


An agro-industrial giant, Brazil is the world’s second largest producer of ethanol and the world’s largest producer of sugar cane, which is used as feedstock in the production of bio-ethanol. Brazilian ethanol derived from sugar cane is deemed the most successful biofuel to date in terms of energy balance and greenhouse gas emissions and it has slowly been replacing gasoline and diesel in significant sectors. Today, bio-ethanol is not only used to power light vehicles, but is also being tested on power buses in city centers and electric powers plants.


Since Brazil’s government launched the ‘National Alcohol Program’ in 1975, making a blend of petrol and ethanol mandatory for light vehicles, pure petrol is no longer sold in the country and in March 2010 ‘flex-cars’ (running on a mix of petrol and ethanol) reached a record of 10 million vehicles built by Brazilian automakers since 2003.


Despite concerns raised by environmentalists and humanitarian organizations, at present the advantages of ethanol produced from sugar cane seem to outnumber the drawbacks. Bio-ethanol is a renewable energy source, its emissions are cleaner than fossil fuel emissions and it contributes to mitigate global warming. This is achieved by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70% to100%, thanks to an overall balance between the CO2 absorbed by the growing crops and the carbon emissions produced by the vehicles running on ethanol.


But the ‘sweet’ news isn’t over yet. Besides literally setting millions of Brazilians in motion, sugar cane is now producing electricity. After being crushed, sugar cane cellulosic residue (known as bagasse) is partly processed into second generation bio-fuels and is partly burned at power cane mills. The energy surplus from bagasse burning is channeled to the Brazilian national grid and about 3% of the country’s electricity now comes from the sweet crop, complementing production from the hydro-electric plants that provide much of Brazil’s power during the dry season.


Thanks to abundant rainfalls, the 2010-11 harvest is expected to break all sugar cane harvest records in the centre-south region of Brazil, the biggest sugar cane growing area in the world. With 570.19 million tons of sugar cane on the horizon, ready to be crushed, Brazil’s contributions to mitigating global warming have never looked sweeter.


This story is part of Climate Change by NOOR.


text © Valentina Tordoni