WUSTL students study biofuels in Brazil

By Washington University in St. Louis | September 17, 2012

Through the International Experience Program at Washington University in St. Louis, undergraduate students gain real-life and classroom experiences focusing on the difficult energy decisions countries must make. 

This unique program takes students to another country during the summer to study energy and environmental technology and policy in a very different context from the United States. The program, now in its fifth year, is offered by the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering.

Students attend pre-trip orientation meetings and lectures in the spring and then take a fall class in which they analyze the experience, engaging in projects, discussions and presentations.

This year’s participants traveled to Campinas, a large city in southeastern Brazil, to study biofuels, said Ruth Chen, professor of practice in chemical engineering and program director. Yinjie Tang and Venkat Subramanian, assistant and associate professors, respectively, in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, also traveled with the students.

In addition to 18 WUSTL undergraduates, 10 students from other universities had an opportunity to go on the trip as part of the National Science Foundation’s program Research Experiences for Undergraduates.

“Engineering is so much more than just solving problems and performing calculations,” said Brittany Radke, a junior at the University Nevada, Las Vegas, who participated in the program as a REU student. “It requires an understanding of different cultures and world views as well. Washington University acknowledges this through its International Experience, and I’m so thankful I was able to participate in this one-in-a-lifetime educational opportunity.”

Brazil is considered to have the world’s first sustainable biofuels economy, an economy based on the ethanol it makes from sugarcane and corn. 

In 2007, the government mandated a fuel blend that contains 25 percent ethanol, and pure gasoline no longer is sold in the country. Because of poor sugarcane harvests, the blend has since been allowed to vary somewhat, a flexibility made possible by the introduction of flex-fuel cars that can run on a various blend of ethanol and gasoline.

Corn ethanol has a low “energy balance,” meaning it sometimes requires more energy to produce than it contains. Sugarcane is much more efficient; sugarcane ethanol has an energy balance seven times greater than corn ethanol. One reason is that the fibrous matter left after the stalks are crushed to extract their juice for sugar and ethanol production is used to fuel boilers in the process stream.

During the International Experience, the students studied biofuel production and Brazilian biofuel policy with the faculty of the chemical engineering department at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), the top chemical engineering department in the country. 

Between classes on topics such as sugarcane ethanol research and development and the conversion of biomass to chemicals, the students took field trips to energy-related companies and research laboratories, such as Petrobras, the largest petroleum company in Brazil; Braskem, the fifth-largest chemical company in the world; the Brazilian Bioethanol Science and Technology Laboratory; and the Brazilian National Laboratory of Synchrotron Light, a research institution for physics, chemistry, material science and life sciences that includes the only linear accelerator in South America.

The program also included Portuguese classes, samba lessons, a trip to a soccer museum, lectures on Brazilian economy and political structure, and a visit to Rio de Janeiro, where the WUSTL students won a pickup soccer game on Copacabana beach. 

Toward the end of the visit, the students summarized what they have learned in presentations for the students and faculty of one of their host universities.

“This year,” Chen said, “they were asked to conclude by saying whether they felt biofuels were a good choice for Brazil.” 

For the most part, she said, they said yes, but they also were aware of the negative aspects of the technology, such as the hardships suffered by cane cutters and the low wages they receive.

As in other years, some students stayed on to complete internships at local universities or businesses. This year, there were four internships: three at UNICAMP in biofuel research and policy and one at Emerson Electronics Brazil in chemical engineering practices. The internship mentors at UNICAMP were professors Luis Cortez, Telma Franco, Everson Miranda, and Gustavo Valenҫa.

“Clean energy, the environment and globalization will be important issues for all our students,” Chen said, “and these trips combine exposure to all three. More than any other country we’ve visited, Brazil has a sense of the future. Several of the students, recognizing this, said they wanted to return there for graduate school.”

Next year, the destination is the University of Queensland in Australia and the topics are coal, coal-seam gas, wastewater treatment, biofuels and geothermal energy. Australia is one of the largest consumers of coal per capita and also the largest exporter, but the government has proposed a cap-and-trade scheme that would provide economic incentives to reduce the country’s emission of cabon dioxide.