Brazil’s Bioethanol Initiative
The OPEC oil embargo caused many ripple effects throughout the world, but few places set in motion a response as dramatic as the county of Brazil. Brazil, a sprawling oil-poor country in South America was hit especially hard by the drop in ready world oil supplies. The county was gearing up for the transition from an agricultural and subsistence economy, to an industrialized one in the early seventies. This was accompanied by an increase in oil imports to the nation from overseas. Early in this effort, the balance of trade was relatively good despite the oil imports due to a strong sugar market. This led to a relative abundance of foreign or “hard” capital for the Brazilian government to use to implement widespread changes to the county’s infrastructure.
With the advent of the oil embargo, that changed the economic picture. The blow was worsened by sugar prices plummeting on the commodities market during the same period, giving the Brazilian economy a reeling combination. The Government reacted by instituting a relatively daring national policy, designed to deliver a two -pronged benefit to the county. The plan was to use the national excess sugar production to make ethanol for vehicle use. This program began in 1975 and was to use traditional fermentation to make fuel.
Fermentation is the best known process by which various microbes break down sugars to make ethanol. While there a wide range of yeasts and bacteria that can make alcohol, the base substrate remains essentially the same. It requires either glucose or sucrose for the biologic pathways to function. This is arguably the earliest biotechnological process in the world and has been used for fuel, consumption and feedstocks for centuries. Modern fermentation factories are using the same techniques that have been employed by man for millennia; with the tweaking of organism selection, micronutrient monitoring and stabilized conditions as a means of getting an improvement in yield.
Since the climate and ecological conditions favor cane production in Brazil, that has become the substrate of choice for the ethanol distillers in that region. Sugar cane is a rapid growing, drought hardy species that usually contains 15-17 % fermentable sugars. With a biomass harvest of 30 tons/ hectare, it is one of the better crops for calories/ hectare in the agricultural spectrum. It also is essentially a ready made fermentation medium, with the needed micronutrients (minerals, vitamins) provided from the raw syrup. The preparation is essentially a heating of the plant extract to sterilize it and inoculating it with the desired fermenter under proper conditions. Yeasts produce alcohol in response to anaerobic conditions, so the typical fermentation chamber is essentially a closed tank with a heater and agitator. The remaining biomass of the cane is often burned to provide the needed heat and or electricity to run the fermentation facility.
The United States...