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Cars On Alcohol, Part 14: Making Cheaper Ethanol
By the end of 1995, methanol was increasingly sharing the news with ethanol. The focus was clear: make ethanol cheaper and easier to produce so it becomes economically viable, and look to the lessons of Brazil, which had led the way in the use of ethanol-fueled vehicles for 25 years. However, Brazil itself was having difficulty filling the tanks of the 5 million cars and trucks running on this alcohol fuel, and also providing alcohol oxygenates for gasoline in certain regions. It was a decisive time. These reports, which are reprinted from Green Car archives just as they were originally published in 1995, lend perspective on how activities in past years have led to the ethanol flexible-fuel vehicles we have on the road today.
PRODUCING ETHANOL ECONOMICALLY
Ethanol can be produced economically using Escherichia coli in fermenting pentose sugars extracted from Willow, a fast-growing energy crop, according to Swedish scientists. Researchers at the departments of chemical engineering and applied microbiology at the University of Lund say the cost of ethanol production using E. coli is only $1.75 per gallon (48 cents/liter).
The process involves several steps. First the willow crop is converted by steam treatment and enzymatic hydrolysis into a sugar solution containing hexoses and pentoses. These sugar solutions are fermented separately and then distilled to produce ethanol.
Saccharamyces cerevisiae is the organism most frequently used in ethanol production. However, it is unable to ferment the pentoses, which constitute 14 percent of the willow. Recently, scientists had proposed that a recombinant E. coli strain, K011, could be used to ferment pentose sugars into ethanol. Now, Guido Zacchi and colleagues at Lund find that ethanol production from willow using E. coli can be accomplished at the $1.75 per gallon figure, a cost with economically advantageous potential.
BRAZIL’S ETHANOL PROGRAM AT A CROSSROADS
Twenty years after it was launched, Brazil’s Proalcohol national alcohol fuel program for cars and trucks faces a decisive moment due to supply problems stemming from economic uncertainties. This is the assessment of Eliana L. Fernandes and Suani T. Coelho, researchers at University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Electrotechnics and Energy, and David Zylbersztajn, secretary of energy of the State of Sao Paulo.
Since 1989, ethanol production has not kept pace with the needs of the Brazilian alcohol-fueled vehicle fleet due to a controversy over costs of the fuel. Production has remained virtually unchanged since 1988, despite a reduction of sugar cane harvest lands, through an increase in agro-industrial productivity.
The Brazilian hydrated ethanol fleet of 5 million cars constitutes 45 percent of the total national fleet, the experts note. A protocol signed in 1992 by the government, the automotive industry, and alcohol producers intends to increase market penetration for alcohol-powered vehicles.
Using current average increase rates of agro-industrial efficiency, and an “efficient scenario” using a higher efficiency increase rate, Fernandes, Coehlo, and Zylbersztajn have prepared a conservative scenario for alcohol production growth. They assume for both scenarios the present harvest surface of 2 million hectares.
Hydrated ethanol prices to consumers correspond to their technical equivalent in gasoline. To support this structure, gasoline prices are adjusted to provide subsidies for ethanol transportation and distribution, but prices of all automotive fuels and other petroleum products are kept low by government policy. The imbalance has eased somewhat, with production costs of ethanol dropping 40 percent from 1978 to 1994.
In addition, there is much room for further improvement using available technologies, commercializing sugarcane products, and improving bagasse-origin electricity cogeneration, the three contend. Still, government prices of ethanol are 20 percent lower than their production costs, even with an increase in prices paid to alcohol products in the 1993-94 harvesting season.
Another problem is the competition for increasing production of highly valued sugar exports at the sacrifice of alcohol production. In recent seasons, methanol was imported to fulfill Brazilian alcohol demand, generating heated debate on environmental impacts. Methyl-tertiary-butyl-ether (MTBE) also was blended with gasoline as an additive for southern Brazil until federal regulations eliminated its use.
“The Brazilian alcohol program is undoubtedly a technical success,” Fernandes, Coelho, and Zylbersztajn say. “Advances have been made both in agriculture and industry, for ethanol production and alcohol-fueled vehicles are part of everyday life of Brazilian consumers.”
However, Proalcohol remains controversial for its economics. Today’s energy scenario differs widely from the time when Proalcohol was introduced in that oil prices are lower than forecasts and domestic production has grown considerably.
“In a society where efficiency has become of great importance, Proalcohol is menaced. Current consumer trust is extremely low due to the present reduced percentage of alcohol cars produced by the Brazilian industry and the fear of another alcohol shortage, as already occurred in 1989.”
The three insist that incentives to alcohol fuel consumers, such as low taxes and warranties from alcohol and automobile producers, are essential to Proalcohol’s survival. Effective harvesting plans, strictly followed, also are needed, as is reducing ethanol production, which seem favorable.
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