Ethanol based Biofuel – the Fuel of the Future?

Bio Fuel EthanolFor many decades the abundant green fields surrounding the small town of Sertaozinho in southeast Brazil grew sugarcane. In fact they grew more than they knew what to do with, until in the 1930s, the Brazilian government stepped in and decided that the huge amounts of surplus sugarcane should be used to manufacture ethanol. The government also made the addition of ethanol to gasoline compulsory.

The Growth of the Ethanol Industry in Brazil

In 1973, with the global oil crisis then in full swing, oil prices rocketed, and Brazil found that its oil imports doubled in terms of cost. As a result, the government decided that it was necessary to consider alternative energy sources in order to attempt to decrease its dependency on fossil fuel imports.

In 1975 the Brazilian government launched its National Alcohol Program which was designed to increase the production of ethanol. They also made the addition of ethanol to gasoline, mandatory. They pumped money into modernizing and expanding existing facilities and creating new production plants. They also introduced subsidies in order to reduce prices, at the same time lowering taxes in favor of ethanol manufacturers.

Across the next 15 years the production of ethanol in Brazil rose from 6 billion liters in 1975 to more than 11 billion liters in 1990. One part of ethanol was added to every four parts of gasoline, making a significant contribution to the country’s economy by reducing the amount of oil the country had to import.

Ethanol Fuel for Automobiles

In 1979 the production of ethanol in Brazil had been geared up to focus on manufacturing hydrous ethanol, which contains 5% of water. This addition of water meant that ethanol alone would be used to fuel automobiles.

The next step in the growth of the use of ethanol came when the National Research Centre for Aviation and Spaceflight in São Paulo developed some new metal alloys that could be incorporated in order to protect the internal components of gasoline powered engines and fuel tanks from corrosion due to exposure to ethanol. During 1986 to 1989 approximately 90% of all new manufacture automobiles that were sold in the Brazilian domestic market, incorporated ethanol fuelled engines.

 Environmental Facts about Ethanol

Ethanol is one of the best products that we have available to use in our fight against pollution from automobile emissions. No other alternative fuel that can be produced on the scale that ethanol is produced, or can match its ability to substantially improve the general quality of the environment when compared to gasoline. It reduces the amount of CO2 emissions by approximately 34% when compared to gasoline. In addition, ethanol is non-toxic, is water soluble, and is biodegradable.

The Fall of the Ethanol Industry in Brazil

But as with all big success stories, there is often a backlash, and for Brazilian town of Sertaozinho this has come in the past 3-years, as low petrol prices in Brazil have dropped the town into its worst financial crisis in the last 30-years. It has meant that many ethanol producing plants have had to be closed down, and as a result, local unemployment has risen.

The Brazilian government, which had been so focused on increasing ethanol production, took its eye of the ball as there were other more pressing issues; inflation in particular. With gasoline having such an important role to play in the inflation battle, the government introduced subsidies to reduce its cost, bringing even more pressure to bear on ethanol production.

As the global economy slumped, so did that of Brazil, and the ethanol producing industry was hit hard. Today, the biggest Biofuel producers (companies like Jairo Balbo) have begun investing in sugarcane as a food crop again. Whereas in the past, these large ethanol producers diverted 60 % of sugarcane into ethanol production and 40% to food production, things are now reversed. In fact on average 65% of sugarcane now goes into food production.

Positive News for the Brazilian Ethanol Industry

The latest news to come out of Brazil is however much more positive for the ethanol industry. Having overhauled its policies, the Brazilian government is now concentrating on ethanol production once again; making it a priority.

  • Ethanol/gasoline blends increased from 25 to 27.5% ethanol
  • The levy of fossil fuel has now been put back in place
  • Subsidies for gasoline have now been withdrawn
  • The weak position of the Brazilian currency makes exports more competitive
  • In 2015 ethanol sales figures are once again on the rise

Brazil – 2nd Largest Global Producer of Ethanol

Brazil is at present the second larger producer of ethanol, globally. The United State is the number one producer. Brazil manufactures 20 billion liters per annum, as opposed to 24 billion liters produced by the US.

The majority (80%) of the ethanol that Brazil produces is for domestic consumption, where at present, 45% of vehicles run on ethanol alone.

The use of ethanol as an automobile fuel received a boost when in 2003, the São Paulo based company, Bosch, developed the flex-fuel engine. Flex-fuel cars can run on gasoline, ethanol, or a mixture of both. They work by sensing the amount of oxygen in the fuel that is burnt and managing the engine accordingly.

Ethanol Fuelled Motorcycles and Busses

New research at São Paulo has now resulted in a motorcycle engine that can run on a combination of gasoline/ethanol fuels, and the first ethanol powered bus in Brazil has recently undergone tests to establish its economic viability.  Sweden already has a fleet of 600 ethanol powered busses in service, the ED95, which was first introduced on a trial basis back in 1985.

Ethanol and the Green Supply Chain

With pressure mounting from the world lobby on the environment, and conservation, ethanol powered transport could have a significant impact on the green supply chains of the future. As a result of Brazil being the world’s second largest producer of ethanol, the opportunities for Brazil on the world stage in terms of ethanol production and production technology are immense, and they are offering their expertise to countries all around the world; especially developing countries who still depend on oil but who could produce their own Biofuels.

A Bright Future for Brazil

University of São Paulo researcher, José Roberto Moreira, has stated that Brazil has the equipment and administrative capacity to make such new plants work. He says Brazil also has the technical knowledge and ability in both the agricultural and industrial phases. He maintains that it is a relatively simple task to begin ethanol project in other countries utilizing this know-how.

Several countries have already made their interest known this year, with Brazil signing agreements with various countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Can ethanol really provide a viable global fuel solution for the future, both financially and environmentally? Please let us have your thoughts including the pros and cons as you see them. 

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