The ethanol program in Brazil

Having been rather negative about bio-fuels, I’ll be positive and mention The ethanol program in Brazil. And the abstract is: The number of automobiles in the world has been growing fast and today requires one quarter of the global petroleum consumption. This problem requires adequate solutions, one of which Brazil has achieved with the Sugarcane Ethanol Program. This paper presents the history of this program, from its launch in the 1970s to the today’s condition of full competitiveness in a free market. It also shows how it can be replicated to other countries, in order to replace 10 per cent of the world’s gasoline consumption.

It also has some stats on energy output/input ratios, showing sugar cane (10) far ahead of wood, corn or beet (various, centered around 2 ish).

[Apologies – the link I added is obviously some on-the-fly thing designed to stop people doing what i’ve done. So: the journal is and the article is down at the bottom – by José Goldemberg. I also notice that there is “Learning from the Brazilian biofuel experience” higher up -W]

[Update: since this post I’ve found/had recommended The Ethanol Illusion and, both of which are rather less optimistic. The latter says the return on oil is 6 ish, which makes 10 for sugar seem very high -W]

7 thoughts on “The ethanol program in Brazil”

  1. I lived in Brazil for four years and had a couple of different cars that used Ethanol. Typically it was half of the price of gasoline per liter of fuel and only had a slightly smaller miles per gallon/liter rating.
    Ethanol has been in use as automotive fuel in Brazil for a few decades now. Earlier on there were problems with ignition temperatures…and cars in the colder climates of brazil (down south) had to usually have a little one liter gasoline resevoir to get the car started on cold days…but they’ve sorted most of that out by now. Embraer – Brazil’s contribution to the airplane industry – has even developed an ethanol fueled small plane.

    The report is right to point out the differences in energy ratios… part of what people dont get here in the US is that corn is an incredibly unefficient way to produce ethanol (if we’re talking fuel output by mass/weight of input) – sugarcane is much more productive…and some research shows that manioc/yucca has even higher yields than cane. Problem for the US is that sugarcane production is limited to Hawaii, Louisianna, and some Mississippi…and ethanol is also notoriously difficult to pipe for transportation so its not like we can just start importing from Brazil to meet our demand.

    That ethanol is a well-established source of fuel for Brazil is a given by now; VW annouced last year that they would stop production of gasoline-only engines in Brazil this year — that’s really big news that never made its way to the US– and they can do that without worrying about a loss of market share because the sales of flex-fuel cars (ethanol/gas hybrids) have been so successful. (I think that both Fiat and GM are following suit)

    Of course, Brazil (as a number of other developing countries) has already made use of natural gas as an automotive fuel –and not just for buses like we do here. As a matter of fact there are a few models of car already available that can run on ethanol/gasoline/liquid natural gas. The ethanol infrastructure is already in place…most gas stations sell ethanol…and natural gas stations are fairly easy to find to.

    My opinion is that we could stand to learn a lot from the way a country like Brazil has dealt with fuel issues.


  2. William,

    This article gives corn ethanol a very healthy and very unrealistic EROEI. He also references Shapouri and Wang. There are some real red flags here. I suggest you read some of the e-mail conversations at Robert Rapier has posted on his blog at:

    I’d make sure you read Robert Rapier, Berkeley’s Tad Patzek and Cornell’s David Pimentel before you rely on that study.

    In all honesty do you have any idea how good a 10:1 EROEI is with sugar cane? Rapier, who works for big oil, claims light fossil fuels only have an EROEI of 6.


  3. citing Pimentel and Patzek on ethanol lifecycle is like citing Lindzen on climate change — both get traction because of their credentials despite the fact that their results are outliers…

    For a good (albeit slightly dated) overview of biofuel lifecycle work check out the IEA’s report:

    Click to access biofuels2004.pdf


  4. I’ll read the IEA text carefully and get back to you. But if Patzek is wrong and Shapouri and Wang are right then Robert Rapier is wrong. And if Rapier is wrong then Rapier has been posting falsified e-mail conversations on his blog and is guilty of libel. Considering I’ve caught Khosla saying outright falsehoods on the radio I will be utterly shocked if Khosla’s quoted stats are correct.


  5. The problem with biofuels is the land they need, which speeds up clearcutting of the Brazilian forests.

    Ethanol can be transported. Sweden imports ethanol from Brazil, which is profitable due to the differentiated taxes here. I doubt it helps the environment to ship it this far, though, rather than using it closer to where it is produced.


  6. Actually sugar cane is one of the most efficient plants at carbon fixation, so it actually eats up less land than other crops. As for rainforest destruction, while sugar cane is a threat to the Atlantic Rainforest, the soils in the Amazon are generally too poor for cane cultivation.


  7. We found an interesting article about the problems with Ethanol on

    “But there are some problems with increasing ethanol blends. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, so increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline will likely result in lower fuel economy. Increasing standard fuel blends from zero to 10 percent ethanol, as is happening today, has little or no impact on fuel economy. In tests, the differences occur within the margin of error, about 0.5 percent. Further increasing ethanol levels to 20 percent reduces fuel economy between 1 and 3 percent, according to testing by the DOE and General Motors. Evaluations are underway to determine if E20 will burn effectively in today’s engines without impacting reliability and longevity, and also assessing potential impact on fuel economy.”

    [spam rm’d -W]


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