Me chame no WhatsApp Agora!

José Geraldo Eugênio de França

Executive Director of Embrapa


Opportunities and challenges

Among the major problems facing humanity in the next 40 years, the biggest are surely those related to water, food, energy and the environment. In 2050, the Earth will have 10 billion inhabitants. As related to food, Brazil will be a prosperous country; we will be a rich country, because we will be the world’s foremost food producer.

However, by no means are we obliged to produce cheap food for anyone. When some time ago the United States decided to produce ethanol from corn, a lot of people criticized this, and yet, who has to say what is to be done with the corn produced in the United States, are the United States. If they make popcorn, corn flakes, flour or ethanol, it is their problem.

So, we too must make it clear that until now, our growth in bioenergy has had no consequences for the production of food. As related to energy, if we today had our vehicle fleet powered by gasoline, we would not know from where to take the money to pay for it. Therefore, this reason by itself justifies the Proálcool and Biodiesel programs.

Regarding diesel, we still have not achieved the result we want, but most surely will. There is no doubt in my mind that we will get there. The scenarios are outstanding. Energy demand in the world is growing and world reserves are limited. It is a bank account from which one only makes withdrawals. The Brazilian oil reserves currently are reason to experience the euphoria of the pre-salt discoveries.

The presalt reserves are important, but they are wealth at a depth of 7,000 meters, and we are dealing with another form of wealth that is only one meter deep – the sugarcane root profile. I believe the US$ 80 oil price ascertained by the consultancies is highly conservative. At the first signs of a new crisis it will go back to US$ 150.

So, due to social pressures and hence, the environmental ones, we need to search for other options of renewable energy production. The USA’s energy matrix has only 7% of renewable energy, the OECD reaches 7.2%, the world average is 12.7%, whereas Brazil makes it to 47.3%. There is nothing like this. This percentage encompasses 15.3% of electricity from hydric sources, 18.1% from sugarcane, 10.1% from firewood and charcoal and 3.8% from other sources.

The world’s ethanol production in 2008 totaled 65.6 billion liters, 73.9 billion in 2009, and the estimate for 2010 is at 85.9 billion liters, with almost 90% of the world production concentrated in the USA (52%) and Brazil (37%). The European Union accounts for close to 4%, China 3%, and Canada for 1.5%. The competitive advantage in the energy balance of ethanol production from sugarcane is immense.

Whereas sugarcane rates at 8 points of energy produced for each point of energy demand, wheat, corn and beet rank between 1 to almost 2. There is no comparison. Several foreign universities published articles stating that there was no efficiency in producing ethanol from sugarcane. This is phony science, aimed at disturbing and intimidating us. And yet, all that has so far been said about second generation ethanol is only the preannouncement of what lies ahead.

The battle begins now. The United States are saying the issue will be up for real in 2012. I hope nobody doubts this, like when they announced they would produce ethanol from corn. We should be alert. They will not want to buy ethanol from Brazil. They want to produce their own ethanol from cellulose. So, if we don’t make ethanol from cellulose, we will buy ethanol from cellulose from the United States.  

From the biological point of view we have a very serious contradiction here. We are permitting ourselves the luxury of calling a noble product bagasse, which contains complex carbohydrates such as cellulose, n-cellulose and lignin. What is even worse: we’re burning it. We must look at this as a cycle of the past. We must change this situation.

To produce a cellulose molecule we have more efficient cultures than sugarcane. Grass is a wonderful plant family from the botanic point of view because it has C4, more efficient from the energy perspective, from the point of view of photosynthesis. So, to produce a molecule of sugar from sorghum or elephant grass is much more efficient than from sugarcane genotypes.

In our view, in the future, ethanol will not be made only from sugarcane. It will share space with two other large types of grasses: sorghum and pennisetum. Using them, we will be more efficient than in any comparable situation in the USA. Our elephant grass is five times more efficient than Miscanthus of the United States, while sorghum is “n” times more efficient.

We have the opportunity to continue in the leading role in the coming decades. However, we must look at this carefully. We are now entering a period of war. We are in a period of risk. Biomass sources for biorefineries will not only be industrial residues, but also trees, grasses, agricultures, residues.

In our view of the future, we will have to cultivate plants to produce this cellulosic ethanol, through enzymatic fermentation conversion processes, gaseous/liquid fermentation, acid hydrolysis/fermentation, gasification, and other processes involving burning – which are, in fact, outdated technologies. We are in a preliminary phase of ethanol chemistry, in which these carbohydrates will be used, and we will have to work very hard on these issues, involving several much more valuable products than ethanol as fuel.

We will have to invest in industrial microbiology, in genetics, biochemistry, biophysics, because it is from there that most modified or not modified enzymes enter this carbohydrate degrading process. Cellulose enzymes are the key for the development of cellulosic ethanol, produced from genetically improved microorganisms for converting the sugars aggregated in the cellulose found in plants to pentoses and hexoses.

This is an encouragement to pay close attention to this issue and direct one´s investments to this new reality. We must be efficient and act complementarily, working in a connected manner to optimize the resources each individual has. In Brazil, four large institutions are working in this process: Cenpes of Petrobras, CTBE - National Bioethanol Science and Technology Laboratory, CTC - Sugarcane Technology Center,  in association with Novozymes, and Embrapa Agroenergia. At Embrapa Agroenergia we plan on permanently having 20 to 30 researchers dedicated to processes, given that product-oriented research will be conducted by the other institutions.

Finally, let me call attention to our challenges: intensification of collecting actions, conservation and access to collections of germplasm; consolidation of agro-ecological zoning; the association of qualitative factor improvement (higher content of oil, sugar, starch, proteins, etc.) with quantitative factors to improve productivity; the use of molecular markers in assisted selection to support the traditional improvement; utilization of transgenesis aimed at the tolerance of biotic and abiotic factors; the potentializing of the use of genomes and bioinformatic tools in bringing about improvement; use of nanotechnology techniques as auxiliary instruments in selection and improvement processes; specific studies on energy-generating cultures, including new options in oily beans and other species for the production of ethanol and biodiesel; selection and development of more efficient cultures when using inoculants containing diastrophic bacteria; expansion of studies on native and exotic plant essences aiming at forests for energy generation and wood products and, finally, technologies conceived to increase the integrated production of sustainable foods and biofuels (direct planting) and the integration of plantations-cattle raising-forests.