Biomass and the Sugar Industry in Brazil’s Energy Matrix

Posted on January 1st in articles

the role of biomass and the sugar industry in Brazil’s energy matrix

The world’s demand for energy is increasing rapidly – far more rapidly than the pace of population growth as increasing wealth and economic development are even greater drivers. This trend is occurring in Brazil at an even faster pace than the global average. Over just the past decade, Brazil’s energy consumption has increased by more than a third, making Brazil now the 9th largest consumer of energy in the world and 3rd largest in the western hemisphere. This is expected to continue, with Brazil increasing its energy consumption more than 50% by 2030.

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The challenge is to meet this growing demand for energy in a reliable, scalable, cost-effective and sustainable manner. Several forms of renewable energy, from solar to wind to hydroelectricity already exist or are being developed to meet this challenge. All will be needed. There is one form, though, that is unique in its ability to provide everything from dependable heat and power to year-round, baseload (and also dispatchable) electricity to liquid transportation fuels and chemicals, all in a readily scalable manner. This source of renewable energy is biomass, and it is one for which Brazil is advantaged in climate, geography, infrastructure and know-how.

the Brazilian sugar industry has the opportunity to continue to play a leading role in meeting Brazil’s energy needs and serving as a leader in the global development of the biobased industries

Anna Rath CEO NexSteppe


Due to a combination of geography and policy, Brazil has developed a truly unique energy mix, with significant contributions from hydroelectricity, ethanol and biomass. This mix is not only unusual; it is also far more renewable and sustainable than that of other major economies. Unfortunately, Brazil’s current largest source of renewable electricity – hydroelectricity – has some inherent limits on scalability and is therefore projected to decline as a fraction of Brazil’s total energy production (despite increasing in absolute terms). In contrast, with Brazil’s signifi cant arable land and favorable growing conditions, biomass has the potential to play a substantially increased role in this mix over time.

Brazil’s sugar industry already plays a large role in Brazil’s overall energy matrix as a producer of ethanol. Because of this industry, Brazil has been a role model for the global development of the biobased industries (those industries working to replace the array of products currently generated from fossil feedstocks with alternatives derived from biomass feedstocks). Increasingly, Brazil’s sugar industry is capitalizing on its existing infrastructure and know-how and seizing the opportunity to play a broader role, both in domestic energy production as well as in the global biobased industries, as a producer of not only fi rst generation biofuels, but also power and electricity, second generation biofuels and other biobased products. This initiative is being aided by technology development on a number of fronts – from efficiency improvements in equipment and mill operations to new fermentation organisms capable of producing an array of fuel and chemical molecules to new crops that can extend mill operations and provide additional revenue streams. These new crops will enable an expanding the role for the sugar industry in Brazil’s energy matrix and beyond.

Purpose-Grown Crops: Biobased industries at scale are a relatively new phenomenon. Even in Brazil where the sugar to ethanol industry has existed for decades, the vast majority of the growth has come since the year 2000. Because they are new and still relatively small, the biobased industries have gotten started using wastes, residues (such as bagasse) and previously existing crops (such as sugarcane) that were developed for other purposes. None of these feedstocks were purpose-developed for these industries, so all have limitations, whether in availability, reliability, optimization for the process, geographic range, or input requirements. If the biobased industries are to reach the scale that Brazil and the world need, it will require a set of purpose-grown crops that have also been purpose-developed.

Key features of these crops will be potential for rapid and significant yield improvement (both field and processing), broad geographic range, and limited water and nutrient requirements. Sorghum, including both sweet sorghum as a source of fermentable sugars, and high biomass sorghum as a source of lignocellulosic biomass, is a crop that has these features, and is now being developed by NexSteppe and others to help enable the biobased industries.

First Generation Biofuels: Presently, most Brazilian sugar to ethanol mills operate only during the sugarcane harvest, from late March or April through late October or November. By planting sweet sorghum in November and harvesting in late February and March, sweet sorghum can provide “season extension” for the production of ethanol – a longer crushing season using the same land and equipment. In areas where mill operators cannot source enough sugarcane to be able to run the mill at capacity, sweet sorghum can also be planted as a second crop, following soybeans, to provide additional material for crushing during the traditional sugarcane crushing season.

Biopower: Using sugarcane bagasse to provide power to operate the sugar mill has long been a part of standard mill operation. In recent years, however, a number of mills have begun turning this bagasse into an additional revenue stream, either by generating renewable electricity that can be sold to the grid or by generating excess power that can be used by other, co-located industrial processes. As this opportunity has developed, leading mills have begun looking to supplement their biomass supply through the use of purpose-grown crops such as high biomass sorghum. High biomass sorghums optimized for biopower provide high yields of lignocellulosic biomass per hectare with relatively low moisture levels at harvest, reducing harvest and transport costs and improving the effective energy density of the crop. This storable biomass can be used both to provide feedstock for the boiler outside of the crushing season and to increase production from the boiler year-round.

Second Generation Biofuels: Brazil is showing itself to be a leader not just in first generation biofuels, but in second generation or cellulosic biofuels as well. Brazil’s favorable growing climate and experience with purpose-grown crops make it a natural location for these new processes. Some of the attributes of high biomass sorghum that make it an attractive biopower feedstock, such as reduced harvest and transport costs, make it a compelling crop for second generation biofuels as well. The ability to get multiple crops per year on the same land also helps make it a cost-effective solution.

With its advantages of significant available arable land, existing infrastructure and extensive experience with supply chains for purpose grown crops, the Brazilian sugar industry has the opportunity to continue to play a leading role in meeting Brazil’s energy needs and serving as a leader in the global development of the biobased industries. By providing increased operating efficiency, significantly expanded geographic range, and additional product and revenue streams, purpose-developed crops such as sweet and high biomass sorghum will play a key role in making this opportunity a reality.


Opinioes Sobre o Setor Sucroenérgetico
Jan-Mar 2013