Filed by Steve Ritter
Our trip to Brazil this week comes at an interesting time. Biodiesel and ethanol have captured the imaginations of soybean and corn farmers in the U.S. and soybean and sugarcane growers in Brazil—as well as lots of entrepreneurs—as a pathway to handsome financial gains. The governments of both the U.S. and Brazil view biofuels as a means for achieving “energy independence” and as yet another way to apply political leverage. For scientists, biofuels represent a new opportunity for international scientific collaborations.
It’s no secret that as fossil fuels are used up, we will have to replace them with something, both to drive our cars and to heat and power our homes and businesses. A lot of people started out thinking big about using hydrogen-powered fuel cells and solar-powered batteries. Solar technologies likely will win out in the distant future once they become more efficient and affordable, but to be practical, biofuels will have to serve in the interim.
BIOMASS Sugarcane (top) and corn. (iStockphoto)
Ethanol currently is the most available biofuel, and the U.S. and Brazil combined produce 70% of the world’s ethanol. One difference between the two countries is that ethanol is made primarily from cornstarch in the U.S. and from sugar from sugarcane in Brazil. Both countries are also ramping up to begin producing ethanol from plant biomass, which can come from a variety of sources ranging from corn stover and sugarcane bagasse to wood and grasses.
The adventure trip to Brazil has a goal to develop sustainable research collaborations for such biomass conversion. The trip has been forged out of a partnership between the American Chemical Society, the Brazilian Chemical Society (SBQ), and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp. Bradley D. Miller, a staff member in ACS’s Office of International Activities, organized the trip as part of a National Science Foundation Discovery Corps Fellowship he was awarded last year.
Miller put together a “U.S. biorenewables dream team” that will spend the next week touring university, government, and industry research centers in Brazil to learn how it has become a world leader in biofuels production. The trip concludes on May 30–31 with a presidential symposium on biomass conversion to fuels, materials, and value-added chemicals, held in conjunction with the 30th annual SBQ national meeting.
“The idea for the project grew out of a 2002 ACS/NSF delegation visit to Brazil to improve bilateral cooperation in the chemical sciences,” Miller says. “There is considerable value and mutual benefit in combining U.S. and Brazilian expertise and knowledge bases in plant-derived biomass as a source for alternative fuel and other products leading to energy independence and pollutant reduction.”
But just as Miller was finalizing plans for the Brazil tour, the U.S. and Brazil announced plans to establish an energy partnership to encourage ethanol use throughout North and South America. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and U.S. President George W. Bush met twice, once in February in Brazil and again in March in the U.S. The two countries plan to sign agreements on technology-sharing within the next year.
This new development seemed at first to trump Miller’s efforts. But he views the two ventures as complementary. At the top level, the U.S. and Brazil will be looking at the technologies in general, while ACS and SBQ will be looking at the basic science, Miller says. “The idea for the Discovery Corps project is to find where the basic science in the U.S. and Brazil intersects, then ratchet that up to the next level.”
For the U.S., the cooperation with Brazil is in part a political maneuver to frustrate President Hugo Chávez of oil-rich Venezuela, and by extension President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, both of whom the Bush administration perceives as security threats. Chávez in particular has been using oil revenues to build influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. For its part, Brazil is quietly forging renewable fuels development agreements with a number of countries, most recently Chile, Jamaica, and Indonesia.
This political jockeying seems inappropriate at a time when political leaders and scientists should be uniting to develop strategies for ensuring global sustainability by using cleaner conventional fossil fuels now and biofuels down the road. It will be interesting this week to discuss these dynamics of biofuels development with the U.S. and Brazilian contingents and get their perspectives on what the future might hold in store.