Biofuels, the World's Energy Past and Future

The biofuel from this mini biogas power plant in the municipality of Entre Rios do Oeste, in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, is supplied by local pig farmers, who earn extra income while the municipality saves on energy costs for its facilities and public lighting. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS
The biofuel from this mini biogas power plant in the municipality of Entre Rios do Oeste, in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, is supplied by local pig farmers, who earn extra income while the municipality saves on energy costs for its facilities and public lighting. CREDIT: Mario Osava/IPS
  • by Mario Osava (rio de janeiro)
  • Inter Press Service

A larger number of poor Brazilians have returned to using firewood, less explosive but also a cause of accidents and of health-damaging household pollution. It is cheaper in the countryside, while in the cities people burn boards and old furniture, not always as widely available as alcohol or ethanol, which can be purchased at any gas station.

In fact, biofuels, such as wood, ethanol, biodiesel and biogas, have been competing with fossil fuels since the industrial use of coal began in England in the 18th century. Economic and environmental factors influence private and public decision-making with regard to their production and use.

A commitment made by 103 countries at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) on Climate Change, which is taking place in the Scottish city of Glasgow during the first 12 days of November, to reduce methane emissions from 2020 levels 30 percent by 2030, may now give biofuels a new boost.

Replacing oil, gas and coal with other sources will help contribute to that goal.

"In Brazil, the demand for ethanol was imposed for economic reasons: high oil prices; and energy reasons: the risk of shortages," said Regis Leal, an aeronautical engineer and specialist in Technological Development at the state-owned National Laboratory of Biorenewables.

Ethanol in the seventies

Ethanol is a fuel produced from sugarcane, corn or any vegetable with a high sucrose content, which is mainly used in motor vehicles. Brazil is the world's second largest producer of ethanol, after the United States.

The National Alcohol Programme (Proalcohol) was created in Brazil in 1975, two years after the first big oil crisis that more than tripled the price of a barrel of oil. Brazil, which at the time imported more than 80 percent of the crude oil it consumed, lost the momentum of an economy that had grown by more than 10 percent per year between 1968 and 1973.

With alcohol or ethanol replacing gasoline or mixed with it, the aim was to reduce dependence on imported oil, while intensifying the search for hydrocarbon deposits for self-sufficiency, which Brazil only achieved three decades later.

In the United States, the use of ethanol began to be fomented in the 1980s, but for environmental reasons, Leal told IPS in an interview by telephone from Campinas, a city in the interior of the state of São Paulo, near the country's largest sugar and ethanol-producing area.

In cities located at high altitudes, such as Denver, the capital of the western U.S. state of Colorado, at 1,600 metres above sea level, lower oxygen levels lead to incomplete combustion of petroleum derivatives and, consequently, greater carbon monoxide contamination and health damage, he explained.

Mixing in MTBE (methyl tert-butyl ether), a combination of chemicals, added oxygen, but because it was a highly toxic product it was soon replaced by ethanol, made from corn in the case of the U.S.

In both Brazil and the United States, biofuel production also bolstered or stabilised the price of sugar and corn by absorbing surplus production.

This is an aspect that is misunderstood by those who condemn biofuel production for apparently reducing food production. This is a false dilemma, because it must be analysed on a case-by-case basis, said Suani Coelho, coordinator of the Bioenergy Research Group (GBio) of the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of São Paulo.

"In Tanzania, a FAO (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation) study evaluated the production of ethanol from manioc. The hypothesis seemed doubtful, also because the energy balance of cassava is not so good. But in Tanzania there is a surplus of the crop that cannot be exported. So it is worth taking advantage of it to make ethanol," said Coelho, a chemical engineer with a doctorate in energy.

In Brazil, where ethanol is made almost exclusively from the more locally productive sugarcane, corn was incorporated in the industry in 2017, with a distillery in Lucas do Rio Verde, in the state of Mato Grosso, the country's largest producer of soybeans, corn and cotton.

"Corn is produced there as a second crop, after soybeans, in the same area, in a volume that is not viable for export. So it makes sense to use it for ethanol," she told IPS by telephone from São Paulo.

Ethanol led to a great improvement in the urban environment.

In Brazil it has already replaced 46 percent of gasoline, according to the sugarcane industry association (Unica), with an annual production of 35 billion litres. It is used as fuel alone in motor vehicles or as a 27 percent blend in gasoline.

The United States produces 50 to 70 percent more than Brazil, depending on the year. Together, they account for about 84 percent of world production, a level of concentration that hinders free international trade in ethanol.

Biofuels or electrification

Coelho and Leal do not agree with the claim that the electrification of transportation tends to hinder the expansion of biofuels to other countries and major producers.

Developing countries do not have the capacity to make large investments to build new infrastructure, such as electric recharging points for vehicles. Moreover, "Brazil is going through a crisis, it is increasing fossil fuel thermoelectric generation, making the energy mix dirtier, and it has no other way to increase the supply of electricity," argued Coelho.

Leal said the demand for ethanol can grow a great deal. "Any increase in its blend in the United States, which accounts for half of the world's gasoline consumption, will have a huge impact," he said.

The ethanol expert also questions the environmental and climatic advantages of electric vehicles, taking into consideration the entire production cycle, transportation, batteries, employment and other aspects.

Biodiesel was not as successful as ethanol, but it also improved the urban environment and has a future, with some additional effort.

It is produced from vegetable or animal oils, even used, and other fatty materials.

Its main problem is that it is more expensive and therefore cannot compete with diesel fuel in order to replace it, Leal pointed out. Currently the diesel blend has been reduced from 12 to 10 percent, so as not to further drive up the cost of diesel fuel, the price of which is rising worldwide.

Another biofuel, which has been around for a long time but is now expanding, is biogas.

It is not only clean, but actually helps to reduce pollution, since it is the gas generated from garbage, wastewater, agricultural waste and animal excrement, which is no longer released into the air, thus reducing greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Its use is incipient in Brazil, but it has the potential to replace 70 percent of the diesel fuel consumed in the country, at a lower cost, according to the Brazilian Biogas Association. And big cities and the country’s enormous agricultural sector offer plenty of raw materials.

By means of a simple refining process, biogas is converted into biomethane, equivalent to natural gas and, therefore, a fuel that can even be used to run heavy vehicles. If used for electricity generation, it could meet 36 percent of national demand, the association of companies in the sector estimates.

Small biodigesters produce biogas that could prevent the use of firewood and ethanol, and the resultant accidents and pollution, among poor families, especially in the countryside, noted Coelho.

"Appropriate public policies and low-interest loans for investments" could boost biogas and its environmental benefits, at a time when international financial institutions are cutting financing for coal-fired and other fossil fuel power plants, Leal said.

The two experts stressed that all these biofuels play an important role in making green hydrogen, produced from renewable energy sources, viable and recognised as central to the world's energy future.

Biofuels have served humanity since its earliest past, not always in a sustainable way. The first was firewood, on which 2.8 billion people in the world still depend, according to an October 2020 World Bank report. But it is environmentally unsound, and leads to deforestation and household pollution.

The oils and resins that illuminated cities and homes in centuries past, before the advent of electricity, were also destructive. Oils extracted from whale blubber and from the eggs of Amazonian turtles are examples, almost driving certain species to extinction.

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