Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Brazilian Biofuels (Rainforest Free!)

New Scientist has this interview with plant scientist Marcos Buckeridge, who gives an optimistic appraisal of Brazil's untapped potential for biofuel production, and its yet unrealized agricultural capacity (link):

How do you do make it sustainable?

A few years ago, when the search for fossil fuel replacements became more urgent, Brazil rediscovered the sugar cane ethanol programme it put into place in the 1970s because of the oil crisis. Back then, nobody worried about sustainability. Now we have to show why Brazil's sugar cane ethanol is different from America's maize ethanol. It is unfair to lump the two together. Our bioethanol is produced by using less than 1 per cent of Brazil's total agricultural area. It does not destroy preserved areas or compete for land with food crops. In fact, Brazilian food production should increase in the next five years. People fear sugar cane will be planted in the Amazon rainforest, but it is too humid for sugar cane there. We want to supply the world with green ethanol without cutting down a single tree. That's the challenge.

How much progress have you made?

At the moment only about one-third of the sugar cane biomass can be transformed into energy. It is an inefficient process. If we can make ethanol from the non-edible parts of the plant as well, we can double productivity. To achieve this, we need to know more about the plant's structure. That's where I come in. I've spent 20 years as a plant cell-wall biologist. We've set up a virtual research institute, and expect that, within five years, this will lead to new technologies to produce fermentable sugars from the non-edible parts of the plant. It's an exciting time to be a plant biologist in Brazil. You could say it's our Manhattan Project. We're preparing the ethanol bomb!

Are you concerned about the ecology of where sugar cane is

I am determined to push for sugar cane to be grown in a sustainable way, conserving or regenerating forest areas in sugar cane fields. So instead of a sea of cane stretching as far as the eye can see, there would be areas of forest too. Things are changing. The government of São Paulo - where half of Brazil's bioethanol is produced - has just introduced more drastic laws requiring that 20 per cent of fields must be set aside as ecological corridors.

- Brewskie

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