Cellulosic ethanol: Brazil’s next chapter

Brazilian ethanol producers are adding production capacity and trailblazing innovative approaches to this cellulosic ethanol, writes Leticia Phillips. This column appears in the April issue of EPM.
By Leticia Phillips | March 10, 2016

Advanced biofuels are sometimes considered an aspirational tale, one with the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions and create green economic growth that is “just a few years down the road.”

But this overlooks companies improving energy security, helping the environment and leading the world’s transition to a sustainable future—especially when it comes to cellulosic ethanol.

Multiple cellulosic ethanol plants have made news by going online across America recently, but Brazilian producers are also adding production capacity and trailblazing innovative approaches to this clean renewable fuel.

Brazilian companies are poised to supply markets in America and around the world with advanced cellulosic ethanol, so let’s take a look at cellulosic ethanol’s potential, the state of Brazil’s production and how it could help contribute to low-carbon transportation.

Cellulosic ethanol’s potential can’t be overstated. Cellulose is the most common organic compound found on Earth, containing the potential to convert unusable materials in agricultural residue like sugarcane straw and bagasse (what remains after sugarcane stalks are crushed) into high-value fuel.
Second-generation (2G) biofuels like cellulosic ethanol reduce greenhouse gas emissions over 90 percent compared to gasoline and can increase Brazilian ethanol production 50 percent per acre without competing with food crops.

Cellulose can also make ethanol plant operations more economically and environmentally sustainable by generating low-carbon electricity through a cogeneration process where cellulosic material is burned in high-efficiency furnaces capturing heat to drive steam turbines and provide district heating.

Since almost all cellulose is considered waste material, turning it into renewable energy is an imperative if we’re going to ever make the switch away from petroleum-based transportation fuels and capture the full potential of renewable energy.

Brazil’s economic and environmental success story with cellulosic ethanol holds lessons for other producers, especially as clean fuels policy is being debated in America at both the state and federal level.

Consider Raizen, the world’s biggest producer of cane ethanol, and Brazil’s fifth-largest company by revenue. Raizen is a joint venture between Shell and Cosan, launched in 2011, producing 4 million tons of sugar and 554 million gallons of sugarcane ethanol per year. The company maintains 5,400 service stations for retail distribution along with 63 distribution terminals and aviation fuel businesses at 59 airports across Brazil.

Raizen is building the future of cellulosic biofuels through a joint venture with Canadian company Iogen. The JV’s first plant went online in December 2014, was officially inaugurated in July 2015, and once fully operational will produce around 10.5 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year from sugarcane bagasse and straw, with production costs expected to fall below first-generation ethanol within five years. The project is among the first commercial-scale plants in the world converting cellulose into 2G ethanol, and could lead to new plants after 2017.

Raizen and Iogen may be trailblazers, but they’re not alone. Another Brazilian company, GranBio, launched Bioflex 1 in September 2014. This facility, the Southern Hemisphere’s first commercial-scale, second-generation ethanol plant, has a 22 MMgy annual production capacity.

Last but not least, research is also expanding cellulosic ethanol output. The Sugarcane Technology Center, which revolutionized Brazil’s sugarcane industry, inaugurated a new biotechnology laboratory in October 2015. CTC’s lab will focus on second-generation ethanol technologies like “flex straw,” and its São Manoel plant is expected to process an additional 100,000 tons of sugarcane waste into bioelectricity and cellulosic ethanol when it reaches commercial operation by 2017.

Today, cellulosic biofuels and 2G ethanol are still in their infancy. But once engineers and technical experts perfect commercial-scale manufacturing, production prices will come down, and cellulosic ethanol could dramatically increase the volume of renewable fuel using the same amount of arable land and no new competition for food supplies. That’s good news for everyone who cares about clean, sustainable and low-carbon transportation.

Author: Leticia Phillips
North American Representative,
Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association, UNICA