The quest for sugarcane-based energy
December 19, 2012
By Karina Toledo
Agência FAPESP – Within the next decade, sugarcane could be a very different plant: more drought resistant and less dependent on fertilizers and agricultural inputs and with a greater fiber content and a cellular wall that is more easily broken down to facilitate ethanol extraction from bagasse.
If the genetic improvement projects conducted under the auspices of BIOEN, FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program are successful, in 10 years, the plant may be called the “sugarcane-energy plant.”
“Our greatest objective is to increase ethanol and biomass production with the least possible environmental impact. This includes appropriate land and water use and the reduction of pollutant emissions,” comments Glaucia Mendes Souza, professor at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP) Chemistry Institute and President of Coordination at BIOEN.
On November 6-7, during the “BIOEN Research Workshop,” Souza and other researchers who are part of the program presented an overview of the main results obtained over the last four years.
Since 2008, when BIOEN was created, 89 research grants have been awarded (or are ongoing), benefiting approximately 300 Brazilian scientists and international contributors from 15 countries.
According to Souza, to date, this funding has resulted in 427 articles published in international journals, 53 doctoral theses, 109 master’s dissertations, 17 patents and software that should facilitate the understanding of the complex sugarcane genome.
The program currently has 83 ongoing projects. In addition to the improvement efforts aided by molecular tools, there are groups dedicated to identifying more efficient microorganisms to ferment biomass. Other groups are seeking the best method for pre-treating bagasse and preparing it for cellulosic ethanol production.
There are also researchers dedicated to reducing the environmental and social impacts of biofuel production. One of BIOEN’s divisions is involved with the development of more efficient flex-fuel motors.
There are also projects seeking to obtain biofuels based on vegetable oils and that propose the use of the residue from the process to manufacture high added-value chemical products, such as glycerol.
“BIOEN has a broad scope, with expertise in many different areas attempting to resolve bioenergy problems,” says Souza in an interview with Agência FAPESP.
According to Souza, the area of biotechnology is among the most advanced. “We have genetic markers and statistics. The entire platform developed to identify and test genes is generating results,” she says.
Although genetically modified sugarcane can be created in laboratories to contain more sucrose or less lignin, the structural material that encases cellulose and hinders fermentation, the plant must still be developed into a crop that maintains the desired agronomic characteristics for the production sector.
According to Souza, “One must evaluate everything again, for example, to assess whether the modified genes will not alter the desirable characteristics of the plant or reduce its resistance to pests. These are mid- to long-term projects because there were no biotechnological tools for sugarcane improvement prior to the establishment of BIOEN.”
For Paul Moore, a researcher at the Hawaiian Agriculture Research Center and member of BIOEN’s International Advisory Council, some of the results presented in the workshop are, in fact, on the frontiers of knowledge.
“I am very proud of what Brazilians have obtained in such a short period of time. All the efforts to uncover and alter the structure of sugarcane’s cellular wall while discovering enzymes and microorganisms capable of converting biomass into energy. This is very exciting and does not exist anywhere else in the world,” Moore highlights.
In Moore’s assessment, the major challenge for program researchers will be with regard to connecting the fundamental sciences to the applied sciences and creating a bridge to transform this knowledge for use in the industrial sector.
Patricia Osseweijer, professor at the Delft University of Technology in Holland and member of BIOEN’s International Advisory Council, shares this opinion.
“I was really impressed with the bagasse pre-treatment work for second-generation ethanol production. However, we still do not have methodology that is completely successful,” comments Osseweijer.
According to the scientists, for Brazil to guarantee its leadership position, both in the scientific arena and in ethanol production, it will have to invest in projects to demonstrate that the technology developed in the laboratory also works on a large scale.
“Creating pilot studies is the most expensive process of transforming scientific knowledge into technology. In many cases, not even industry can manage to carry these costs alone. One must think of a way to bring together several companies and universities to divide the risks and investments,” comments Osseweijer.
According to the data presented by Souza during the workshop, there are eight projects being conducted under the auspices of BIOEN in partnership with such companies as Vale, Oxiteno, Braskem, Boeing and Microsoft.
“There are several projects beginning with the support of FAPESP’s Research Partnership for Technological Innovation (PITE- FAPESP). Perhaps it is merely a matter of time to show that these technologies actually work,” Souza says.
Souza also believes that BIOEN is on the brink of transforming its knowledge into high-performance processes. “If we do not offer the lowest energy and water consumption and the lowest pollutant emissions, the efforts are useless. It is also worthless for our efforts to be highly technological and difficult to implement in a developing country,” she adds.
Education and communication
Osseweijer highlighted the program’s major investment in training new researchers and the growth in international collaboration over the past few years. “If Brazil wants to maintain its leadership in the area, it needs to train people,” she says.
For Osseweijer, however, investing in projects in the fields of education and communication is also fundamental. “Students must be interested in these areas early on, in addition to understanding the attitudes of the strategic sectors of societies in relation to bioenergy and how to create strategies to engage these audiences,” she adds.
In contrast, Moore suggests the expansion of high-throughput phenotyping programs to rapidly identify changes in the sugarcane phenotype as a result of the modulation or elimination of genes. “Molecular biology advances quickly, but the real world of biology is slow. We need to find a way to accelerate it,” he states.
According to Souza, one of BIOEN’s goals is to transfer all the knowledge obtained through the program to society and to offer subsidies for the formulation of public policies that allow for the sustainable expansion of biofuel usage.
“In partnership with researchers in FAPESP’s BIOTA and Global Climate Change programs and with the Scientific Committee on Problems of Environment (SCOPE) – linked to UNESCO – we are elaborating policy suggestions for the United Nations Program for the Environment,” explains Souza.
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