Brazil’s Biofuel Potential Set to Expand Thanks to Sustainable Aviation Fuel — Global Issues

An Air Force plane brings home Brazilians who managed to escape the war in Gaza as part of a humanitarian operation. Airplanes shorten distances but pollute the atmosphere and aggravate the climate crisis by emitting two percent of greenhouse gases. Sustainable biofuels can mitigate that damage. CREDIT: FAB
An Air Force plane brings home Brazilians who managed to escape the war in Gaza as part of a humanitarian operation. Airplanes shorten distances but pollute the atmosphere and aggravate the climate crisis by emitting two percent of greenhouse gases. Sustainable biofuels can mitigate that damage. CREDIT: FAB
  • by Mario Osava (rio de janeiro)
  • Inter Press Service

The electrification of automobiles has tended to curb the strong ethanol and biodiesel agribusiness developed in the country since the 1970s. But demand for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) now offers the possibility of significant new expansion for many decades to come.

Electrically powered airplanes are not viable with current technology, and will not be for a long time. “Batteries are very heavy and store little energy,” said Arnaldo Walter, a mechanical engineer and professor at the University of Campinas.

Nor is green hydrogen, the fashionable ecological fuel, an alternative for aviation, because of the difficulty of storage and the need for temperatures of more than 250 degrees Celsius below zero to keep it in a usable liquid form. In addition, the entire design of aircraft would have to be changed, a process that could only be achieved in the long term.

Brazil has everything it needs to become a major producer of green hydrogen, which is generated by electrolysis of water, but requires abundant electricity from renewable sources. That is the case in this country, especially in the Northeast region, which has huge potential in wind and solar energy, in addition to ports closer to Europe than those of other competitors.

The solution is biomass-derived fuel, which does not require altering the format of aircraft or their turbines, by naturally replacing aviation kerosene, the use of which generates two percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate requirements

“Not just any biofuel will do, it has to meet the requirements for environmental, social and economic sustainability certification,” Walter told IPS by telephone from the southern city of Campinas, with a population of 1.1 million people located 90 kilometers from São Paulo.

Deforestation, for example, is one of Brazil’s Achilles’ heels, given the reports of forests being cleared to grow soybeans, whose oil will probably be one of the main raw materials for SAF. It is not enough to decarbonize the fuel, but also the whole process of its production.

The goal is to meet the target set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

“SAF is the only economically viable and available alternative, despite its sustainability challenges,” argued Amanda Ohara, a chemical engineer and fuel specialist with the non-governmental Climate and Society Institute, in an interview with IPS in Rio de Janeiro.

Soybeans and sugarcane, abundant but disputed

Brazil is the world’s largest soybean producer, with an output of 154 million tons in 2023, about half of which was exported to China. Its oil is the main raw material for biodiesel, which is blended with fossil diesel in this country at a current proportion of 14 percent. Congress is discussing the possibility of raising it to 25 percent in the future.

In addition to its thriving agriculture, based largely on oilseeds and sugarcane, which can supply SAF plants, the country has ample potential for expansion.

“Brazil has favorable conditions for biofuels, such as available land, good climate and rainfall, although they are now more uncertain than before,” said Walter. Tens of millions of hectares of land degraded by extensive cattle ranching in the past can be used to recover production.

In Latin America’s largest country, with 850 million hectares of territory, only 61 million hectares were dedicated to agriculture and 164 million to cattle pastures in 2022, according to MapBiomas, a monitoring platform of a network of organizations focused on climate change.

The government set a goal of recovering 40 million hectares of degraded land in 10 years, almost the same as the area planted with soybeans today: 44.6 million hectares.

Soy already has a well-established market and consumers. Dedicating part of its oil to SAF competes with these uses and will require a large expansion of its cultivation, that is to say, new lands and the risk of deforestation, which together with changes in land use constitute the great source of greenhouse gases in the country.

They represent economic and environmental costs that drive the search for alternatives.

The macauba, a tropical palm tree whose scientific name is Acrocomia aculeata, is attractive because of its high oil productivity and its presence in almost all of Brazil, as well as in other Latin American countries under various names, such as coyol, corojo, grugru or macaw palm.

It has not yet been commercially produced, nor has it been domesticated, making it a long-term, risky bet.

But Acelen, a company controlled by the Mubadala Investment Company of the United Arab Emirates, is promoting a project to grow macauba palm trees on 200,000 hectares of land in northeastern Brazil to produce SAF as of 2026.

To this end, it has an oil refinery in Mataripe, 70 kilometers from Salvador, capital of the northeastern state of Bahia, acquired in 2019 from the state-owned oil company Petrobras.

Ethanol is another alternative raw material, which, like soybean oil, has the advantage of large-scale production, but competes with other uses. In Brazil, sugarcane is the main source of ethanol, whose consumption as a fuel is almost as high as that of gasoline.

In its anhydrous form, it currently accounts for 27 percent of gasoline sold, a mix that is expected to rise to 30 percent or even 35 percent. But ethanol is also used alone, in its hydrated form. In Brazil today, almost all cars have flexible engines, powered by gasoline or ethanol, or by a mixture of any proportion.

Cane and corn ethanol

Ethanol lags behind vegetable oils in the production of SAF, but will benefit from a production boom expected in the coming years. It will be able to triple its annual production, which totaled 31 billion liters in 2023, without the need to greatly expand the cultivated area, according to industry leaders.

Brazil is already the country that grows the most sugarcane in the world, which allows it to lead the sugar market and occupy second place in ethanol, surpassed only by the United States, where corn is the main source.

Raízen, a joint venture between the British oil transnational Shell and Brazil’s Cosan, is studying the new biofuel, also in partnership with universities, while expanding its ethanol production, of which it is the national leader.

It is a pioneer in second-generation ethanol, extracted from sugarcane bagasse and other cellulose-based waste. This ensures up to 50 percent more ethanol, without the need for more crops. The company has already started up eight plants of this type and expects to have 20 in operation by 2030, despite the fact that they are more expensive than conventional plants.

Sugarcane productivity should also increase in the coming years, according to agronomic researchers, who expect to see production rise twofold mainly due to the planting of new varieties with genetic improvements.

In addition, second-crop corn, generally planted after soybeans in the same area, has allowed an increasing production of ethanol, especially in the midwest region of Brazil. It already represents 17 percent of the national total.

There are other alternatives, such as fossil derivatives but with reduced greenhouse gas emissions, wood from trees that grow faster in tropical countries such as Brazil, animal oils, and even cooking oil.

Each one requires different technologies, with their own costs, maturation times and environmental effects, said Walter. Logistical conditions, dispersion or facilities for collecting raw materials can also determine the most promising alternatives.

“There is no single solution, no silver bullet. We will have to combine various alternatives, depending on the intended or possible scale,” Ohara said. The choice is no longer purely economic, but also responds to the climate emergency, because “gas emissions must be reduced as a matter of urgency,” she added.

The expansion of monocultures will be inevitable in a country like Brazil, which aims to ensure a sustainable supply, but the damage can be mitigated with agroforestry systems, combining oilseeds with other crops, which diversify the vegetation and conserve the soil, proposed the chemist and environmentalist who worked for six years with biofuels in the state-owned Petrobras consortium.

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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