Brazil: South America's Harvester of Renewables

The world's top ethanol producing nation has joined the biodiesel revolution.
By Louisa Aronow | May 01, 2004
here are oil wells erupting in Brazil, but they're not spouting fossil fuels. Biodiesel is being added to Brazil's smorgasbord of alternative fuels, with support from the academic world, government and private industries.

"Before 2010, Brazil will be the world shopping place for biodiesel," claims José Domingos Fontana, coordinator for the biodiesel program at Paraná State Institute of Technology. "Brazil is cropping more than 120 tons of grain yearly. Crop growth rate, year following year, has been increasing."

A boom in soy production has been a catalyst for growth in the private sector, although many other oils are also abundant in Brazil's varied geography. Brazil will be producing more than 55 million metric tons (over 60 U.S. tons) of soy in 2003-2004, along with enough sugar cane to produce 13 billion liters (3.5 million U.S. gallons) of ethanol, thus inspiring Coamo, Latin America's largest soy cooperative, to start planning a large biodiesel plant.

Currently Ecologica Mato Grosso (ECOMAT) is the largest biodiesel plant in Brazil. Located in Cuaibá, the capital of the state of Mato Grosso, the plant was inaugurated four years ago. The current capacity is 40 metric tons per day, with plans to double or triple capacity within two years.

ECOMAT's products could be totally consumed by the railroad. America Latina Logistica has been testing B20 and B100 in its cargo trains in southern Brazil and Argentina, and the results look promising. The trains will need 35 million liters (9.3 million gallons) of biodiesel per year to run on B20-enough to keep one biodiesel plant quite busy.

Sunflower seeds are the feedstock of choice at the new Eco Öleo plants in states of Paraná and Goiás. Hugo Olivar Betio, director of the plants, explained that a small farmer can sell 60 kilograms of soy for about US$12, and a 60-kilogram bag of sunflower for $10. But soy can produce 15 percent oil, compared to 32 percent to 35 percent from sunflower. "That's why only sunflowers can convince producers to make biodiesel," Olivar Betio said.

Convincing the small farmers to sell their products to the biodiesel plant is another step. "First I have to convince the farmers that sunflower is economically feasible," he said. "Then I can convince the farmer that it's better ecologically."

Sunflowers are a winter crop in Paraná, so farmers can grow it in rotation with soy or other crops. Small farmers sign contracts with large corporations to sell 80 percent to 90 percent of their crop, but they can bring the remaining 10 percent to 20 percent to Eco Öleo and get a fair price.

Another promising feedstock is forage turnip, with an oil content of about 30 percent, using the cold press process. It's a winter crop that's easy to grow in parts of Brazil.

"I would like to say a little about jatropa," Olivar Betio added. "It can be planted in infertile ground, and it's a perennial [it can last up to forty year]). It produces year-round and generates jobs in the harvest. The seed has a high oil content [around 60 percent] and if it's not cultivated for seed production, it can be part of the forest land in agricultural areas. We have approximately 9,000 seedlings growing now."
Supporting small farmers and creating more jobs are part of the Brazilian government's policy of "social inclusion." Fontana described social inclusion as the policy that "wealth is not just for big corporations. We have the responsibility to include poor people in the benefits … It's not an easy prospect but it's quite possible."

Babassu (a palmacae) is a promising, labor-intensive feedstock source that is being developed by Paraná State Institute of Technology in the states of Ceará and Piauí. "It produces saturated stable fatty acids and grows naturally in the interior of the country," Fontana said. "The oil is contained inside a very hard nut."

The Brazilian petroleum company Petrobras has been developing castor bean oil (mamona) in the northeast. This oleaginous Brazilian native supports small farmers and grows well in that region, including the borders of the Atlantic rainforest where deforestation has made the land minimally arable.

In populous Rio de Janeiro, researchers at the federal university are harvesting the world's most ubiquitous feedstock source: fryer oil from McDonald's. The objectives of the RioBiodiesel Program are to conclude testing within two years, while using biodiesel in vehicles associated with the program. Eventually they hope to use B5 in all government vehicles in accordance with a federal law, which would reduce the country's need to import diesel fuel by 2 billion liters (529 million gallons) per year.

Six identical city trash collection trucks have been the test vehicles since February 2003. They run similar routes and use the following mixtures: two trucks with B5 from soy oil, two trucks with B5 from McDonald's and two trucks with diesel. No problems have been noted in any of the vehicles.

Starting in April, three city buses using B10 were added to the RioBiodiesel Program, also utilizing recycled McDonald's oil.
A university van picks up the used fryer oil in barrels and takes it to the laboratory. There the gleaming processors and mixers, made from recycled food production equipment, currently produce around 2,000 liters (529 gallons) per week. The fuel is not only used in the vehicles, but also in the lab to refine the esterification process towards the goal of a perfect fuel for widespread use.

Another bountiful source of oil in this urban area is the waste treatment plant. Luiz Guilherme, a researcher at the International Virtual Institute on Global Change, explained that the waste treatment "foam" is actually a cleaner feedstock source than most vegetable oils. "The foam doesn't produce glycerol," he claimed. "The esterification process uses up all the free fatty acids."

Guilherme explained why the process is not that complicated. "Every home has fats going down the drain, and soap residue from washing hands," he said. "The solids are removed and the liquid portion goes in a tank. The liquids separate and the oil goes to the top. It's heated to remove bacteria. Using waste to make fuel gets rid of a disposal problem, and makes jobs where there was nothing."
A consortium of international groups is planning two projects: using oil retrieved from Rio International Airport to make 12,000 liters (3,170 gallons) per month to be used by airport fleets, and using oil from Rio's waste treatment plant to make 3,000 liters (793 gallons) per month to be used in city sanitation vehicles.

Anyone who has tried breathing in Rio can understand the urgent need for alternative fuels in the city. Older municipal buses are a common form of transportation, and they belch copious amounts of unregulated diesel fumes into the air. According to World Health Organization statistics for 1995, the air in Rio had over 16 times the sulfur dioxide level of Los Angeles. Reducing dependence on diesel fuel is essential not only for Brazil's economy, but air quality as well.

Municipal buses running on biodiesel are being tested in the city of Curitiba. The American Soybean Association helped the project get up and running in 1998 by providing fuel, but now homegrown biodiesel is provided by ECOMAT. For the last five years, 40 buses have been using B20 successfully, and in 2000 50 buses started using MAD-8, a mixture of 8 percent ethanol, 2.6 percent biodiesel, and 89.6 percent diesel. Hopefully the Curitiba experiment will encourage other municipalities to include biodiesel in their fuel for buses.

The biodiesel boom in Brazil may face fierce opposition from environmentalists if the dependence on soybeans for feedstock continues. According to The Associated Press correspondent Michael Astor, soybean plantations are advancing into the rainforest at an alarming rate, increasing the rate of deforestation when combined with the devastation caused by cattle ranching.
In the Querencia area, Indians are concerned that destruction of the rainforest will dry the rivers and poison the fish with chemical run-off.

The governor of the state of Mato Grosso, Blairo Maggi (of the multinational Maggi corporation), hopes to more than quadruple the state's soybean harvest in the next three years. The federal environment minister, Marina Silva, claims that soybeans can be planted in areas that have already been deforested, without making inroads in the rainforest. Environmentalists claim that uncleared land is so inexpensive that illegal land sales are expanding these soy plantations rapidly.

The increased use of genetically modified soybeans is, of course, another barrier to support from environmentalists. Although Brazil officially has a "no-GMO" policy, the use of transgenic seeds is prevalent. "Lula (Brazil's president) wants Paraná to be free of transgenic soy. The export business is hampered by transgenic soy ... Paraná exports to France," said Fontana.

"But there's a special decree by the president protecting (transgenic soy in) Rio Grande del Sur to avoid loss for the next two years. The state of Rio Grande del Sur is a great soy producer, with over 75 percent "Round Up Ready" transgenic soy, that migrated naturally from Argentina."

There is no doubt that Brazil's agricultural diversity has much to offer to the livelihood of Brazilians, along with an abundance to share worldwide. As Hugo Olivar Betio stated, "In our slogan we say 'BIODIESEL-Economically viable, ecologically correct.' We are trying to achieve the first one ... and the second is our obligation to humanity."

Louisa Aronow is a freelance writer living in California.
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