11/10/2004 (IPS News) RIO DE JANEIRO -- Rising oil prices and the upcomingimplementation of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases, following therecent ratification by Russia, are accelerating the process of turningBrazil into a world leader in "bio-energy".
Exports of alcohol made from sugarcane are expected to increase from 800million litres last year to two billion litres this year -- this expansiontrend continues independent of rising world oil prices.
There are many countries, like Japan, that are moving to blend ethanolwith gasoline, or increase the alcohol additives in fuel, as a meanstowards curbing air pollution.
It augurs for renewable energy sources having a strong global impulse withthe implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets goals for reducingemissions of greenhouse gases, responsible for climate change.
The Russian Senate announced its ratification of the global treaty Oct.27. Once it is enacted by the Russian president, the Kyoto Protocol willenter into force, as it has finally achieved the required threshold ofcountries: a total that produces at least 55 percent of the world'sgreenhouse gases.
In Brazil, renewable fuel is recuperating the popularity it had in the1980s, and not just because of the lower price. There is a growing demandfor "bi-fuel" automobiles that can use gasoline, fuel alcohol or any mixof the two. These cars were put on the market last year.
In 1985 and 1986, alcohol-fuelled vehicles had achieved the incredibleproportion of 76 percent of all of Brazil's car production. But supply andprice problems eroded the Proalcohol programme for fuel substitution thathad been launched during petroleum crisis of 1973.
Output of alcohol-driven cars hit bottom in 1997 -- just 0.06 percent oftotal car production, according to Brazil's National Association ofAutomotive Manufacturers.
Since then there has been a gradual recovery, which was particularlynotable last year, with 84,173 alcohol-fuelled cars, including the bi-fuelvehicles, represented 4.6 of automotive production. This year that portionis expected to be five times as big, as 253,817 such cars were producedfrom January through September.
The possibility of using one fuel or another, along with the reasonableprice, contributes to public confidence in alcohol as a fuel in general.It reduces the risk of shortages or sudden price hikes at servicestations.
In addition, all gasoline in Brazil contains 20 to 25 percent anhydrousalcohol, which reduces petroleum dependence and pollution. And work isbeginning on manufacturing crop spraying aircraft that run on ethanol.
The subsidised development of Proalcohol cost some 40 billion dollars, butthe country has "already recovered those expenses" and is now seeing itsfruits, including the continued development of related technology, OsvaldoStella Martins, an expert with the National Centre for Biomass Research,told Tierram,rica.
The sugarcane needed to make Brazil the world leader in sugar and alcoholproduction also generates enormous quantities of waste pulp, a source ofenergy that feeds the electricity market as well as running the sugarmills and distilleries.
Now the new biodiesel programme is motivating researchers and businessleaders. The government announced that it will authorise its addition toregular diesel fuel in November, in a proportion of two percent andincreasing to five percent over the next few years.
Beyond reducing the need to import fuel and curbing environmentallyharmful emissions, the programme is intended to be socially inclusive,generating hundreds of thousands of jobs and promoting family farming inimpoverished areas, says Science and Technology Minister Eduardo Campos.
It is also a government priority to promote production of fuel using thecastorbean (Ricinus communis) in the Brazilian northeast, the country'spoorest region. But biodiesel made from castorbeans must be more heavilysubsidised, as it costs three times more than petroleum, said Stella, amechanical engineer who holds a doctorate in ecology and naturalresources.
Castor oil, the raw material for hundreds of chemical, medicinal andcosmetic products, has great unsatisfied global demand, and it would bemore logical to promote its production as an industrial input, instead ofusing it for biodiesel and burdening society with the cost of subsidies inorder to "resolve a problem for Petrobras," the giant state-run oilcompany, he said.
The problem is that Petrobras must produce diesel without sulphur, forenvironmental protection reasons, and it would be better to substitutethat lubricant with biodiesel, transferring costs to society, explainedthe expert.
Studies are under way for producing biodiesel using other plant sources,and even from the vegetable oil waste in cities, such as from foodprocessing and restaurant cooking.
The alternative that most excites Stella and forestry engineer LaercioCouto, president of the National Network for Biomass Energy, is to makeuse of agricultural and forestry waste.
Lumber production uses 45 percent of the tree, leaving "incredible"biomass sources, Couto told Tierramerica.
The lumber waste is packed into cylinders to reduce volume and humidity,and to facilitate transport, and is exports to Europe are beginning. Butlast year just 40,000 tons were sold, while the demand reaches two milliontons, the engineer added.
Brazil, with its land, sun, and water resources, is a major producer ofbiomass, and the process of photosynthesis makes the South Americancountry an energy superpower, according to Jos, Bautista Vidal, the"father" of Proalcohol.
However, the great distances and insufficient infrastructure that maketransportation expensive continue to create obstacles in the energybusiness beyond local production and use, Couto said.