Brazil, ethanol and...the future?

Was watching a show on the History Channel tonight where they were touting Brazil and its flex fuel cars and ethanol production. They called it ‘The Brazilian Energy Miricle’. I was wondering if this is perhaps the wave of the future…or if there are downsides (or hidden costs or whatever) not shown on the show. Could this replace or at least seriously augment energy needs in America? In Europe?


Except of course that they know how to spell ‘miracle’…something I obviously don’t. :smack:


I find this sudden interest in Brazilian ethanol quite wierd. We’ve had alcohol driven cars for decades now. Ethanol is mixed with regular gasoline too, and cars have been adapted to this level of mix a long time ago. The novelty are the flex cars that can use either ethanol or gasoline or mix them.

Downsides ? Not many. Alchohol driven cars have a bit more power. Alchohol burns faster and provides more power… but it goes away faster than gasoline. So you will be filling up a bit more frequently then gas only cars. (10-20%) This is offset by the lower price of Ethanol. So which fuel is more cost efficient varies according to the international price of sugar.

Potential long term problems are having ethanol production that depends of course on how well sugar can plantations are doing. Sugar can be planted in most hot areas of the globe… but Brazil has a big agribussiness with good yields that give it an edge. The problem is that when sugar becomes more expensive… less ethanol gets produced… and the Governement changes the amount of ethanol mixed with regular gasoline. This is good for producers…

At a guess a lot of countries were taking a ‘wait and see’ approach…observing Brazils programs and seeing if they would work out in the long run. They seem to have stood the test of time (at least thats my impression). I know that here in the US there is ethanol and ethanol mixed fuels…but they are heavily subsidized so the impression is that they aren’t a viable alternative. Also without cars specifically designed to run the fuel I think there are mechanical problems (more wear on the engine and such IIRC).

Do you think Brazils model could be expanded to fulfill the needs (or at least agument them) in a nation the size of the US? Is Europe looking into this alternative? Anyone else? I’d think countries like China (and India) especially would be moving towards something like this to at least augment their growing energy demands.


Ethanol is an agricultural product, derived from sugar IIRC. That’s good because it is renewable. It’s also bad because increased demand for ethanol means greater deforestation to create farmland (IOW cutting down rainforest) used to produce it. The other issue is that it is still indirectly a petroleum product. Modern agriculture is highly dependent on fertilizers and pesticides which, as you know, are made from petroleum products.

Once again, the largest problem with ethanol is the fact that for the same gallon, you will lose about 20% of your range. So if you went about 200 miles between refills, you’d now go 160. It’s a pretty hefty bite.

Any figures on how well it performs at low temperatures? One of the big claims to fame for straight gasoline is that it still functions as a fuel, rather than a big paperweight, at -45 F. I would guess that mixing in a noticeable amount of ethanol might raise the minimum workable temperature, which would limit the range geographically in which the fuel could be used.

But that wouldn’t be the case here in the US (i.e. the deforestation part)…most of our agro land is already cleared. Also, I think you can make ethanol from corn sugar which is easier to grow in large quantities (at least I think thats the case).

I don’t know about the fertilizer angle. Are you saying that we’d be using the equivelant amount of petroleum products for fertilizers and pesticides that we are saving by going to ethanol or other biofuels? Is this the case in Brazil?


IIRC, Brazil happens to be geographically and technologically in a position to produce sugar much more efficiently than other countries which means this actually makes economic sense. In other countries right now, it’s on the verge of being borderline economically viable, depending on the longer term price of oil.

As some wag once said about why real estate is a good investment “They aren’t making any more land”. That applies to agricultural land as well as housing land. There is a finite amount of agricultural land, if you use it to produce sugar you can’t use it to produce grain or pulses or beef or trees.

IOW the fact that the US has largely been deforested is a non-issue because it was deforested for a reason. You can’t simply squeeze ethanol production into already occupied land without displacing something else. And if you displace something else then it will be produced elsewhere. So, for example, if you displace bean production with sugar beet production within the US the bean production will go elsewhere because it is still profitable. And where it goes it will also displace current crops from current agricultural land, possibly in Brazil. And the crop it displaces will then go elsewhere.

It’s a zero sum game. Ultimately most of that diplacement will provide incentive to clear forests to produce the diplaced crops. It matters not one bit that the US has already deforested itself, Brazil will still cut down rainforest to grow soybeans for the US market, just as it is doiing now, if the US won’t grow them itself because the land is being used to produce beets or corn.

Cane sugar remains the easiest way of producing large amounts of sugar in those areas where it can be grown, which is why most of the world’s sugar comes from cane. Sugar cane is inherently a more efficient plant and the sugar is extracted directly from the phloem as sugar, rather than only being produced in those tiny little fruiting bodies as starch and needing expensive chemical refinement.

Grain sugar has an advantage in that it can be produced in a wider range of environments.

That’s exactly what he’s saying. It’s also what Cecil says. “In an analysis published in 2001 in the peer-reviewed Encyclopedia of Physical Sciences and Technology, Pimentel argued that when you add up all the energy costs–the fuel for farm tractors, the natural gas used to distill corn sugars into alcohol, and so on–making a gallon of ethanol takes 70 percent more energy than the finished product contains. And because that production energy comes mostly from fossil fuels, gasohol isn’t just wasting money but hastening the depletion of nonrenewable resources.” Of course Cecil’s column is a couple of years old now and research and technologicla advancement continues apace, but basically ethanol uses slightly to significantly more fuel than it produces.

Is this the case in Brazil? Astoundingly nobody is quite sure, but it’s certainly a close-run race. The trouble is that the exact efficiency of ethanol is dependent on the the season: rainfall, insect population, temperatures, days of sunshine and so forth. As a result the amount of fossil fuel used also varies. Then we have other fluctuating factors like the price of petroleum, the price of labour and so forth. Added to that many factors are very hard to quantify precisely.

But the best figures I’ve seen suggest that Brazil is curently coming out slightly ahead of the game WRT ethanol energy. Because of a highly centralized populaton, limited private car ownership and population centres locate close to production centres as well as a tropical climate ideally suited to cane production as well as some clever and long-term work by the government Brazil gets about 10% (IIRC) more energy from ethanol than it uses to produce it. But, and this is important, I have never seen anyone suggest the US cpould ever achieve this level of efficency. While Pimmental’s figure of a 70% fossil fuel loss form ethcaonl production might be on the high side I’ve never seen anyone suggest that the US could currently save fossil fuels by producing ethanol.

Not really, no. Brazil is the ideal nation for ethanol production, and even it is still marginal. You need a tropical climate, a few high density population centres located close to cane production areas, a relatively low standard of living so many people don’t own cars, large amounts of underexploited land unsuitable for most other crops and several other factors to make this workable. Brazil has those things, the US does not. As a result ethanol production is simply not capable of making any significant impact on US energy consumption.

To put this into perspective, if all the best renewable energy technologies were implemented to the fullest, hydroelectric dams, wind farms and other installations would take up 17 percent of the land and still replace less than 50 percent of our fossil-fuel consumption. Even if we manage to re-work our entire national lifestyle become as efficient as Brazil ethanol can only ever represent the tiniest fraction of that 50%. And as things stand ethanol fuel is a net drain on energy resources.

China and India aren’t especially well suited to ethanol production. Ethanol has such a low energy density that as soon as you need to ship it more than a few hundred miles from the distillery it becomes a net energy drain even if it was energy efficient to distil it in the first place. As a result countries with dispersed populations can’t really exploit ethanol as a fuel even under ideal circumstances, and India and especially China have very dispersed populations. China has the added problem that it isn’t for the most part climatically suitable for cane sugar production and is a net importer of sugar. It will never be energetically or economically feasible to produce ethanol form imported sugar. India is more suited climatically to cane production but would require some massive investment to modernise the industry as well as irrigation schemes and so forth to ensure supply. Whether it will ever be energetically profitable to produce ethanol in India is doubtful, but it certainly isn’t possible in the short term.

Thanks Blake. On the History Channel they made it sound like the wave of the future. Its good to hear the other side of the equation.


The History Channel is much like the Discovery Channel, they need to hype the facts to get viewers. They can’t really sell some documentary on a moderately interesting alternative fuel source that serves primarily as an economic buffer/subsidy for Brazilian farmers. They need to sell it as some new whiz bang breakthrough that is going to cover the world.

The real way of the future is going to be improvements in fossil fuel technology, increasing nuclear power, reduced energy consumption/increased design efficiency and better use made of small scale renewable technologies. Biofuels, solar and so forth as large scale solutions are largely pipe dreams, they’ve got a niche role to play but without major technological breakthroughs they aren’t a solution to anything.

Ethanol will never susbstitute hydro power and nuclear power for eletrical power. Ethanol is basically vehicle fuel. The emphasis was never for thermo power stations IMO.

I didn’t know about the cost of energy to produce vs energy output was that bad for Ethanol. Petroleum is easy to refine. So ethanol depends a lot on Petroleum being expensive and crops being plentiful.

The major focus of ethanol naturally for europeans is that its more environmentally friendly. Europeans have excessive agricultural production and might be able to use some of their own crops for ethanol production and import relatively cheap Brazilian sugar/ethanol. Also Sugar cane is planted mostly in the coastal areas… not rainforest areas.

If the price and demand is good… Brazil can certainly increase its yield significantly. Long term if the market is right they could over time double production (guessing out of my head). If a few African countries got there act together they could too supply increasing amounts of ethanol. (requires refining) Still a weak dollar and petroleum prices going up and down might mean that super production is a big risk that many might not be willing to take.

Ethanol is very abrasive and engines have to be built for this kind of fuel. Not much different from Gasoline engines…

One thing often forgotten in the “70% more energy to create a gallon of ethanol” agument is that there are at least five other byproducts of the ethanol creation process. Animal feed, gluten, bedding and other prodcuts need to be figured into the equation but seldom are. Essentialy, what is the net final output of that bushell of corn? It is more than just the ethanol.

If farm equipment is run on biodiesel (soy-diesel) rather than petroleum diesel, then that equation looks even better. While the process may not be 100% effecient in that it takes more energy to create the ethanol, if that energy is created from soy-diesel, and the by prodcuts of the fermentation prodcut are considered, I think that the ethanol solution may be better than the study shows.

Now it may be the Iowa in me talking here, but it seems like an issue that should be studied more in depth. Here is a LINK to a local producer.

I’ve seen a TV documentary about this issue some time ago, but I don’t remember the content very well. However, IIRC, it seems to me that :

-Actually, ethanol is already mixed in small quantity with gas, unbestknown to us.

-Engines would have to be modified to be accepting of higher %ages of ethanol

-It’s just not possible to produce enough ethanol to fully replace gas. I don’t remember the figure they mentionned, but it was something like using all farmed land in France to produce ethanol.

Here in the US, it is advertised on the pump if you are purchasing 10% ethanol gas.

Yes, but they can be modified to run both gasoline and/or ethanol. It is becoming a very popular engine choice given the high price of gas over here.

One of the biggest reasons that the Iowa delegation to the US Congress pushes so hard for greater ehtanol use is due to a burdensome glut of corn on the world market. There is so much corn produced in the world that it is worth next to nothing as it is being harvested. By openeing up new uses for corn, and as I mentioned earlier soy based diesel fuels, dependence on foreign oil would not be eliminated, but it would certainly but put in check. And remember that corn and soy beans are a truly renewable resource.

I thought corn would produce bio diesel… and not necessarily ethanol…

Corn surely makes more sense for the USA.

There are a number of problkems with biodiesel or ethanol corn, some of which are structural (collection would be absurdly expensive), some of which are environmental.

Corn = ethanol
Soy = bio diesel