Sugar Cane Ethanol: The sustainable solution for future transportation




Interview to Santiago Paz Brühl
Consultant in Renewable energy and Sugar Energy Sector
Mechanical Engineer, Tucuman National University – MBA – IESE (Navarra University)

What is the scenario today and in the future of renewable energy, for instance in the case of transportation?
If we consider all the energy consumed on the planet, only 20% is electricity and most of it, is used by transportation. For this reason, we ought to seek for sustainable solutions and this should be the guideline for sugar energy industry to find its position.
At an international level, we may look at the example of Norway and the Netherlands. Both countries have already banned vehicles using internal fueling systems (gas or diesel) starting in 2025. England will follow as from 2040. China and the rest of Europe are on the same path to decide a date too. This fact has made automobile corporations fix a date to stop manufacturing internal fueling vehicles.
The automobile of the future will be electric, but then, the question is posed on its source of energy.

What are you referring at? Which are the variables to be analyzed, and their pros and cons?
Electric cars may be fed by renewable energy, either wind or solar, though considering the way it is conceived today, it can only run on batteries that take between 2 and 12 hours to charge and their economy is 200km. Besides, the cost of the battery packs represents more than 2/3 of the total cost of the vehicle. There exist other solutions under research suggesting the use of electricity from different sources such as hydrogen cells to avoid electric power. How does it work? The vehicle has a device charged with hydrogen and with oxygen taken from the atmosphere; it generates a reaction producing electricity inside the vehicle, thus being far more efficient. The internal fueling engine has an efficiency of 30 or 40% because the rest is sent to the atmosphere as heat. The electric hydrogen cell, instead, is 60% efficient: this means that by means of this technology, the same amount of energy may produce double results, or similarly, half of the energy is needed. However, hydrogen also has inconveniences: a whole different distribution network is requested, since hydrogen needs to be at -200ºC and higher pressure than CNG. In consequence, this is not an easy or immediate solution.

What are the alternative technologies to produce energy involving sugar cane?
There are alternative technologies involving the sugar energy sector. Nissan is testing a new device: a catalyst obtaining hydrogen from ethanol. This technology is known as SOFC. The system consists of adding the catalyst to the vehicle; together with ethanol and oxygen from air, it generates hydrogen and carbon dioxide environmentally neutral because that component had been originally taken by sugar cane from the atmosphere. That is a solution to the use of electric vehicles.
Therefore, it is true that the electric car is the future and it is highly probable that the battery used today is just a temporary technology. Nissan has already built prototypes of these vehicles and they have been introduced during the Olympic Games in Brazil 2016; they can run 600km with 30 liters of ethanol. Using this alternative, we may solve the problem of the battery life and its time to recharge. I really see the future of sugar cane in this direction.

Climate Change is a fundamental issue in almost every Congress worldwide. How can we explain the importance of dealing with this topic during the next ISSCT Congress 2019?
In my opinion, there are two facts in a cross junction: On the one hand, low sugar demand and on the other hand, all the energy possibilities sugar has to give, both closely related to climate change.
The Congress is a place to generate great ideas in order to get motivation and think about the future, thus motivating all politicians to see the future in this activity and therefore, to rely on it. This activity should not be attacked, it should be promoted instead. The most important fact is to get the support with energy policies at a domestic and international level.
We can see the climate change is happening now; it is not a new feeling. Droughts, floods, extreme weather phenomena that took place every 50 years; it takes place every 5 years these days. The increasing frequency of these situations makes us lose crops. For instance, last year we lost 30% of our grain crops and today we are suffering the economic consequence in all the country. It may also generate the opposite effect, with unseen excessive rainfall and yield abounding crops, plunging prices and busting the whole productive chain. Both situations are undesirable.
Climate change may also come as a frozen wave: in 2013 there was snow over the sugar cane in Tucumán and frosts reached Rio de Janeiro. There may be an increase in the annual average temperature, but considering crops like sugar cane, 4 hours of severe frost may be deadly or may reduce 50% its yield despite the winter has mild average temperature. Then, climate change affects food safety.

How are carbon dioxide (CO2) and temperature associated?
First of all, it is important to note that carbon dioxide is the main among the GHG (green house effect gases) and therefore, it is used as reference, but there are many others. The CO2 is used as a pattern unit; for instance, a methane molecule (CH4) generates a green house effect equivalent to 24 CO2 molecules.
During the pre industrial era, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. In 2015, we reached 400 parts per million, causing the average temperature of the planet increase 1º. The last 3 years have been the hottest in history. If we continue this way, without making any change on the energy matrix, what will it happen to us? We will probably reach 600 parts per million of CO2 by 2100. This would imply an increase of 3º in temperature compared to the industrial era. Consequently, we must think that if only 1 grade we are already suffering the consequences we see every day (droughts, fires, floods, polar ice melting, increase of ocean levels), then with 3 grades mankind and many other species could disappear.
In order to be clear and simple: we may state that the sun rays bounce in the Earth and leave. If no GHG existed in the atmosphere, the Earth temperature would be 17º below zero. Then, gases filter those rays and make the Earth temperature goes up. During the pre industrial era, gases were balanced and the temperature was reasonable. Today, only a few of those rays coming into the atmosphere can leave and so, this layer gets hotter; the effect on weather conditions is sensitive and the consequences are terrible. Climate change is directly associated with carbon concentration and fossil energy is the main responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases.

How are political leaders reacting to this?
Fortunately, governors have noticed this situation, despite there are some influencers denying the facts because it is more convenient at an individual or group level. Even though it is sometimes denied, it does exist. The United Nations organizes summit meetings to deal with climate change. The one held in Paris 2015 was really impressive: many guidelines were defined for countries to avoid this situation. One of these directions is to avoid the increase of temperature above 2 grades compared to pre industrial era. It is recommended to increase up to 1.5º by 2100. Although it seems distant, some actions we are doing now, have a long term effect. For this purpose, fossil fuel consumption has to drop 50% by 2050 and 0% by 2100. Then, 2/3 of the fossil hydrocarbon reserve must be kept under the ground.

It is hard to believe that countries are planning to “lose” their reserves…
Before the “noise” caused by climate change, some countries kept their oil reserves; today, they are trying to take them out anyway before the “taps are turned off” and so other countries keep their reserves under the ground. This planet will not give us an option: as long as the climate change problem gets worse, there will be more pressure to make hydrocarbons stay there or otherwise, to generate technical solutions to catch the carbon and bury it again. We do not know any of them…even if we may see them in a laboratory, the costs are still so high that they are impossible to carry out, thus it is more possible to keep it under the ground.

It is quite clear; apparently nobody could be against producing bioenergy…
However, there are sectors against this fact and they rise the question between food vs energy, i.e. we cannot use crops to generate energy and make people starve. But now, I dare change the point of view: provided we have climate change and this is affecting our food safety, we must have a crop reserved for energy. Whenever there were adverse conditions, food was always first and then the use of energy is restricted and it is replaced by fossils; but only in those cases.
The problem of food production is not scarcity but excess and all the growth potential of crops at a technological level. In Tucumán we have a variety of transgenic sugar cane that could increase production 20%, but it is restrained by the possible effect in the market. The excuse is that if it is traded and the world market does not pay its real value, then the domestic market will break. The food problem is not about availability but balance between supply and demand.

How do you evaluate the biofuel situation in the región, mainly in Brazil?
Markets that have developed the most the use of ethanol as fuel are United States and Brazil. The rest does not use it or instead, they have policies protecting their own industries and do not have an open market. In US there is a developed demand of alcohol from corn and in Brazil, demand arises from sugar cane ethanol. In Brazil, there exists a rule to use 27% ethanol in fuels blend; in US, however, it is 10% by a legal provision as well, but based on a huge market, that is why it is highly developed.
In Brazil there was a boom between 2005 and 2010. About 100 new sugar factories opened (compared to Argentina with 23). Later, they started a crisis similar to Argentina and in order to stop inflation, the government froze prices of fuels, the sector went on a crisis and about 100 sugar factories closed (in general the oldest).
The price of fuel in Brazil is fixed according to the energy power of fuel. For instance, if a car runs the same distance with a litre of alcohol as with 0.7 litre of gas; then if the price of alcohol is 70% cheaper than gasoline, the driver will use alcohol, but if it is more expensive, gasoline will be chosen.
In this equation we are not considering an essential element: the impact on climate of each type of fuel. Gasoline comes from petroleum that comes from the internal part of the Earth. Petroleum is carbon that nature took millions of years to bury and fix deeply under the ground. In this case, it is removed, released into the atmosphere and nobody cares about it. Whereas alcohol is neutral carbon and the carbon released during alcohol combustion is the same type of carbon taken by the plant to grow, and therefore, it does not add any carbon to the atmosphere. When Brazilians saw the extent of this crisis, they created the plan RenovaBio. By means of this plan, they command distribution companies selling fossil fuels –polluting- to buy carbon bonds to those organizations producing clean energy. Thus, the equation is partially balanced. The parties producing clean energy will be able to issue bonds easily traded, since distribution companies will have to buy them. This plan generates more income for alcohol and increases a little the cost of fossil fuels. So, alcohol market becomes more competitive.

Are they the “green taxes”?
They are known worldwide as GREEN TAX, i.e., charging the parties adding carbon to the atmosphere and not getting it back into the ground.
One of the central topics of this Congress could be to make attendants aware about the benefits of promoting the GREEN TAX at a world level, that is, making fossil fuels pay not only their cost of production, but also pay the cost of repairing the environmental damage they cause. If this mission could be accomplished, the demand of all the renewable energies would increase and no subsidies would be necessary. Today, it is said that gasoline is cheaper to produce than alcohol and it really is, but in that equation there is an important element that was not considered: Climate Change. Everybody has assumed that the air is free, but it is not.

Which policy should Argentina adopt regarding the price of bioethanol?
Bioethanol is a fundamental help to reduce climate change. Promoting bioethanol should be a policy of estate. Long term projections require clear and stable rules. The ideal situation would be an existing balance between those policies that currently promote domestic production of fossil hydrocarbon and those applied to bioethanol.

And in this context, how can sugar cane price be estimated?
The main component of the cost for either sugar or ethanol is the raw material: the cane represents at least 60% of its cost. And the government, to settle the cost of the raw material, the sugar cane, used the “maquila” scheme (that determines an equivalent in sugar for cane delivered in the mill), though there is a misconception because the domestic price of sugar was taken as a reference. What happens with domestic price of sugar? When the price of ethanol goes down or is not adjusted, Argentina has 30% excess, and then it is derived to alcohol or it is exported, but if the price of alcohol is frozen, then the incentive to produce it disappears and producers make more sugar. Then the price goes down because the market is saturated. When the price of sugar goes down, as the price of ethanol is made up of a maquila formula, then it pushes down the price of ethanol, too and therefore, its production is even less motivating. This could generate a circular reference.

Lastly, from the Congress organization there is another topic: the anti sugar lobby. What do you think about the existing relationship between some sectors with sugar consumption and the increase of obesity?
There is no evidence of associationx according to the facts. Obesity is a complex disease with deeper causes.
It is not true that sugar consumption is the main cause of the increase of obesity. There are countries where population consumed about 60 kilos per capita by 1960 and by means of rules and provisions, they could decrease that consumption to less than 30 kilos per capita and notoriously, obesity has not decreased at all: it was maintained and in some cases it has increased!
It is clear that losing the balance between the energy a person incorporates and those spent, obesity may be produced. But it is not a question of sugar but the whole diet. When the population habits change, it influences seriously on the migrations towards urban areas, technology comfort, the time spent in front of a screen of an electric device, all these factors contribute to a sedentary life, but people still cannot balance the energy taken and the energy spent.
Obesity is a worldwide problem and it must be beaten. From this sector we must contribute to look for real causes and we should not allow any confusions in the population by creating a negative image of sugar. We must understand the problem and not be afraid of speaking openly about these issues.