Around 1930, Brazil began experimenting with sugarcane-derived ethanol as a fuel supplement for the then newly introduced automobile. But a series of oil crises provided the crucial impetus for the 1975 creation of the National Alcohol Program (Pró Álcool), with multiple strategies to develop a homegrown ethanol industry and to phase out fossil fuels for transportation in Brazil. Today, Brazil is the world's most efficient and second largest (after the United States) producer. In his Regional Initiative article in the second issue of Energy Quarterly published in the December 2010 MRS Bulletin, Arthur L. Robinson describes the current state of ethanol production and usage in Brazil, and discusses it from a global energy view-point.
Brazil's ethanol production is still a drop in the world's energy bucket, and the country is looking to make a bigger impact in the global energy landscape. A new science ministry action plan is attempting to do just that, by promoting R&D efforts. The country does appear to be capable of ramping up ethanol production to displace up to 10% of world gasoline consumption. The article highlights some of the research steps being undertaken at various universities and centers, such as a lower energy intensive distillation process and greater synergy between fuel, food and raw materials. Second generation technologies are also being pursued, including cellulosic ethanol and genetically engineered and synthetic organisms. Brazil's ethanol represents one path toward weaning the world away from fossil fuels, and Brazilian scientists realize that it would take the combined contribution of various renewable technologies to meet future energy needs. For now, Brazil continues to be a giant in ethanol usage for energy.
Gopal R. Rao, Ph.D.
Web Science Editor
Materials Research Society (MRS)