Proálcool, one of Brazil's major science and technology based achievements | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Proálcool, one of Brazil's major science and technology based achievements This assessment was presented by participants at a meeting at FAPESP on the 40th anniversary of Proálcool, the National Fuel Alcohol Program (photo: São Martinho mill in Pradópolis, São Paulo State / Wikimedia Commons)

Proálcool, one of Brazil's major science and technology based achievements

December 21, 2016

By Elton Alisson  |  Agência FAPESP – Proálcool, the National Fuel Alcohol Program created by government decree in November 1975, has bolstered the production of bioenergy in Brazil during the last four decades and is one of the greatest genuinely Brazilian science- and technology-based achievements.

The program was made possible, among other factors, as a result of close collaboration between universities, research institutions, government and industry, according to participants in “Proálcool, universities and industry: 40 years of science and technology for Brazilian ethanol” (http://www.fapesp.br/eventos/proalcool), held on November 30, 2016, at FAPESP in São Paulo.

The purpose of the event was to discuss Proálcool’s history and background, from the colonial sugarcane era to the use of ethanol as automotive fuel in the twentieth century, and to assess the present state of play and future opportunities for bioenergy derived from sugarcane.

The book Proálcool 40 Anos, a collection of articles edited by Luís Augusto Barbosa Cortez, was launched during the event. Cortez is a professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in São Paulo State and a member of the steering committee of FAPESP’s Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN).

Besides Cortez, the articles in the book are by Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s Scientific Director; Gláucia Mendes Souza, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Chemistry Institute (IQ-USP); Heitor Cantarella, a researcher at the Agronomy Institute of Campinas (IAC); Marie-Anne van Sluys, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Biosciences Institute (IB-USP); and Rubens Maciel Filho, a professor at UNICAMP. All are also members of BIOEN’s steering committee.

“In Brazil, there’s a tendency not to recognize major technological and scientific achievements when their authors are Brazilians. But perhaps Brazil’s greatest science- and technology-based achievement has been to enable the automotive vehicle fleet of an industrialized economy to be powered by ethanol,” Brito Cruz said in his presentation at the event.

Perseverance

For the participants in the event and the authors of the book, Proálcool’s success was due not only to the choice of an efficient energy crop such as sugarcane and the climate and soil of Brazil’s Center-West, Southeast and South regions but also, and above all, to the perseverance of industry leaders, government and researchers who were prepared to wager on the technological feasibility of fuel ethanol produced from sugarcane.

“Proálcool’s launch was met by a barrage of criticism and worldwide skepticism regarding Brazil’s decision to produce a fuel as an alternative to petroleum,” Cortez said.

“No one in government, industry or the research community paid much attention to what the world thought, and they pressed on with the program. It’s very unlikely that Brazil would have achieved self-sufficiency in oil without Proálcool’s contribution.”

The main reason for the creation of Proálcool was precisely to reduce Brazil’s dependency on petroleum, especially following the 1973 oil shock: between October 1973 and January 1974, oil prices quadrupled.

After a few years, however, it became clear that in addition to its economic advantages, ethanol from sugarcane offered the key environmental advantage of emitting less carbon into the atmosphere than gasoline and other fossil fuels.

Moreover, sugarcane had a highly positive energy balance, indicating a large difference between the energy consumed to produce sugarcane in terms of fertilizer, truck transportation and other resources and the energy produced from sugarcane.

A 1977 article in Science by José Goldemberg and collaborators was the first contribution along these lines. Goldemberg is a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Energy & Environment Institute (IEA-USP) and FAPESP’s President.

The authors calculated how much energy was used to produce ethanol from sugarcane, cassava and sweet sorghum in Brazil and showed that sugarcane was the most efficient, followed by sorghum and cassava. The main advantage of using sugarcane was its bagasse, a significant energy source.

“The paper was important not for the accuracy of the numbers it presented, which were very primitive and were later improved on, but because it gave the industry more confidence by demonstrating the importance of sugarcane as a means of capturing the sun’s energy and showing that ethanol is liquefied solar energy,” Goldemberg said during the event.

“At the time, the academic community was not in the slightest interested in either ethanol or sugar from sugarcane.”

Thanks to its investment in the production of ethanol from sugarcane starting with Proálcool, Brazil is now the leading country among the world’s ten largest economies in terms of renewable energy sources as a share of the overall energy mix, with a value of 43.4%. Bioenergy from sugarcane alone accounts for 18.1% of the total, according to data from the Ministry of Mining & Energy highlighted in the book and by participants in the event.

Brazil is the world’s leading sugarcane producer, and its ethanol output in the 2015-16 crop year reached 28 billion liters, according to UNICA, the sugarcane industry association.

In the 1975-76 crop year, when Proálcool was launched, Brazil produced 555 million liters of ethanol.

This year, the 174 sugar and ethanol mills in the Center-South will produce 82 metric tons of sugarcane per hectare, according to data from the Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC) that were presented by Goldemberg.

“It’s important that mills strive for higher agricultural yields,” he said. “Some are very productive, but on average, this factor isn’t very impressive.”

São Paulo’s contribution

About 60% of the ethanol produced from sugarcane in Brazil is produced in São Paulo State, whose energy matrix is strongly based on this biofuel, according to Brito Cruz.

In 1980, 62% of all the energy used in São Paulo State came from petroleum. In 2013, petroleum’s share of the state’s energy mix fell to 38%, largely thanks to ethanol, whose share increased from 14% in 1980 to 32% in 2013. 

“Bioenergy is very important to São Paulo not only economically but also because it helps the state reduce carbon emissions,” Brito Cruz said.

One factor that has contributed to this strong growth of ethanol as a share of the energy matrix in recent decades is support for bioenergy research in the state, according to Brito Cruz.

Since its creation in 1962, FAPESP has always supported many research projects in the field of bioenergy, and in 2005, it decided to extend its funding for such research and to do so in a more coordinated manner.

This included funding for a project led by Cortez with the aim of establishing guidelines for scientific and technological research on bioenergy in São Paulo State.

The results of the project served as input for the 2008 launch of BIOEN, which now has more than 300 researchers affiliated with universities and research institutions in Brazil and abroad engaged in research projects on different aspects of bioenergy, such as crop breeding, industrial production, engines, and environmental and socio-economic sustainability, among others.

“The main difference between BIOEN and similar bioenergy research programs around the world is that BIOEN basically covers all knowledge areas relating to bioenergy,” Gláucia Souza said.

The program has established partnerships with seven companies to identify possible applications for some of the results of the projects supported.

They include Peugeot Citroën – with which FAPESP agreed to set up an engineering research center for the development of combustion engines powered by biofuels in 2013 – and Dedini, a manufacturer of industrial equipment based in Piracicaba, São Paulo State.

Between 2008 and 2012, FAPESP and Dedini partnered to fund projects that contributed to the advancement of knowledge and technology in the field of industrial processes for the production of ethanol from sugarcane.

“We played a very significant role in the implementation and development of Proálcool by helping to establish hundreds of standalone distilleries –currently known as ethanol plants – with totally Brazilian technology in the initial stage of the program,” said José Luiz Olivério, Dedini’s Director of Operations, during the event.

Researchers linked to BIOEN have published more than 930 scientific articles in the last seven years. This scientific production, according to Brito Cruz, has contributed to São Paulo State’s current position as the region of the world with the largest number of scientific publications on sugarcane, behind Brazil overall but ahead of the US, India, Australia, China and Cuba.

“São Paulo is becoming a focus for bioenergy research worldwide, which is what we want to happen,” he said.

The book Proálcool 40 Anos (doi:10.5151/9788521210627), by Cortez et al., is available free of charge (in Portuguese) from openaccess.blucher.com.br/article-list/proalcool-universidades-e-empresas-40-anos-de-ciencia-e-tecnologia-para-o-etanol-brasileiro-310/list#articles.

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