The Sweet Smell of Fuel Derived From Sugar Cane

Brazil is the world leader in ethanol produced from sugar byproducts.

ethanol-powered motorcycle
This motorcycle can run on sugar cane ethanol, gasoline, or a mixture of both. (Paulo Whitaker / Reuters)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

What a difference a drought makes.

In 2007, CNN suggested that its readers, “Imagine a fuel that does not come from the Middle East, is about six times more economical to produce than corn ethanol and has the potential to help the environment because it requires few chemicals to grow.”

“Then imagine there's virtually no chance such a thing will ever come to the United States, at least in any appreciable numbers. Meet sugar cane ethanol, a product fueling economic growth in Brazil, a nation that between its oil reserves and the burgeoning ethanol industry has attained energy self-sufficiency.”

In contrast, Reuters reported yesterday that, “Brazilian exports of ethanol surged in July to 410 million liters, most of it going to the United States . . . ‘Brazil will export more ethanol to the United States due to the drought there,’ ” according to Plinio Nastari, president of DATAGRO, an ethanol and sugar consultancy firm.

MORE: The Choice: Feed Your Family or Feed Your Car?

If you’re not familiar with the idea of converting sugar to ethanol, USDA Rural Development explains:

“More than half of world ethanol production is produced from sugar and sugar byproducts, with Brazil being by far the world leader . . . Technologically, the process of producing ethanol from sugar is simpler than converting corn into ethanol. Converting corn into ethanol requires additional cooking and the application of enzymes, whereas the conversion of sugar requires only a yeast fermentation process . . . As other countries have shown that it can be economically feasible to produce ethanol from sugar and other new feedstocks are researched, interest in the United States in ethanol production from sugar has increased.”

SugarCane.org notes that, “Brazil has replaced more than half of its gasoline needs with sugar cane ethanol–making gasoline the alternative fuel in the country . . . The country first began using ethanol in vehicles as early as the 1920s, and the trend gained urgency during the oil shock of the 1970s. However, sugarcane ethanol’s popularity really took off in 2003 with the introduction of flex fuel vehicles that run on either gasoline or pure ethanol. More than 90 percent of new cars sold today in Brazil are flex fuel.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S., NPR reported today that, “since the start of the summer at least seven ethanol plants are now idle in states like Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana and Kansas. Including shutdowns from past years, Cooper says about 10 percent of the nation's ethanol plants are now offline. Others, though still operating, are running at 75 percent or 80 percent of capacity. The nation's corn crop won't meet expectations. Some predict it will be only two-thirds of what was planted in the spring . . . High corn prices and limited supply have renewed the debate over whether this crop should be going to produce fuel or food.”

Of course sugar-cane-to-ethanol production has its downsides too. The 2007 article by CNN discussed the “emission of greenhouse gases through burning of cane fields when harvesting,” which Brazil was working to contain. But they were also encouraging, saying that, “The industry in Brazil could serve as a template for the U.S. and others looking to implement strong biofuel practices.”

Do you think the U.S. should pursue sugar cane ethanol as an alternative fuel?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence | TakePart.com

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