Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Glaucia Souza on the introduction of BioFuels in Sao Paulo and all over Brazil, her activities at BIOEN and the transfer of technologies for more sustainable forms of mobility into practice.

The impact of bioenergy research

Bioenergy production (liquid biofuels for long haul transportation, for instance) and use has come to be seen as an essential component of our energy matrix and it must be expanded if we are to avoid climate change [1]. It is the only available option for fossil fuels substitution for a large sector of our economies.

Countries across the world struggle to reach their GHG reduction emission targets. In this regard, there are lessons to be learned from the scientific and technological advances observed in Brazil. A Largely renewable energy matrix allowed for using not much of its land resources and accompanied of avoided CO2 emissions that in twenty years correspond to the planting of 4 billion trees.

Bioenergy in Brazil: a success story

There is no country in the world with a population over 60 million people that has an energy matrix with more than 40% renewables. Dedicating itself to develop modern agricultural landscapes, Brazil was able to achieve a 42.9% renewable share of its total energy (more than double of the global average) and an 82% renewable share of its electricity using biomass and hydroelectricity (Empresa de Pesquisa Energética EPE, 2018).

The key component of this achievement is sugarcane ethanol and sugarcane bioelectricity which are produced alongside sugar, a long-standing traditional product of the country.

In 2018, the share of ethanol in the fuel matrix used by light vehicles reached 50.2% in gasoline equivalent, the highest in history. Additionally, bioelectricity produced from sugarcane bagasse contributed to 17% of electricity consumption [2].

It is very hard and costly to develop the infrastructure needed for electric vehicles. There are estimates that hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent by some nations. But Brazil was able to phase-out completely the use of pure gasoline with the adoption of a blend that is now set at 27% ethanol mixed and sold in all stations of the country and with the development of flex-fuel engines that can run on either gasoline or 100% ethanol.

There was a learning curve to reach this economically competitive bioeconomy that took profit of the robust science and technology community of the South East of the country, specially the State of São Paulo [3].

If the State of São Paulo in Brazil were a country it would be among the most populous nations in Europe (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística IBGE, 2018). With a population of 44 million people it is close in population to Spain and many-fold larger than The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and Portugal. If it were a country it would also be the world’s largest producer of sugarcane.

The State of São Paulo has more than 190 thousand square kilometers planted with crops, pastures and forests destined for economic use. It has an established Agroecological Zoning which is a technical-scientific instrument built on top of data on the climate, soil, vegetation, suitability of the land for agriculture, social and economic characteristics, hydrology and biodiversity distribution which establishes where sugarcane can be planted. It is the world’s largest producer of orange juice and contributes the largest national fruit production (one third of the total) and is also the second largest producer of soy. It is also considered the fourth largest coffee producer in the world (CONAB, 2018) [4].

São Paulo is the largest industrial pole in Latin America and the largest hub of Agro-Technological innovation in the continent (IADB, 2018) [5] where a large focus on solutions to climate change, sustainable use of natural resources, reduction of food waste and sustainable development is seen (IADB, 2018). The South East region of Brazil also has 35 million cars (53% of the Brazilian fleet [6]). More than 90% are flex-fuel vehicles, able to run on ethanol from 0 to 100%.

All this to say that it is possible to sustain a really large-scale economy on biomass-based renewable fuels generating wealth and innovation.

The role of science for the successful deployment of bioenergy

The backbone of these achievements is a robust scientific community that since the early 2000’s is working the learning curve of a bioeconomy. In 2003, the first flex-fuel engine was developed in Brazil and in parallel we had the genomics era enabling a biotechnological approach for energy-crops breeding that galvanized bioenergy research.

It is true that all began with an ethanol blend mandate in 1931, that in 1976 gained momentum due to the oil shocks, but in 2003 a new phase of ethanol production took place with the launch by the automotive industry of flex-fuel cars. A renewed interest in sugarcane, the world’s largest tonnage crop, led to the first efforts of bringing biotechnological tools for the improvement of this crop. We started sequencing the sugarcane genome, the most complex genome to be sequenced to date, a giant genome with an average 10-copies of each chromosome. This opened many doors for genetics, breeding of new varieties and advances for the full use of biomass for bioproducts (no carbon gets wasted). At FAPESP, the State of São Paulo Foundation, an effort was made to articulate the many scientific initiatives and to promote collaborative research with the industry and a Bioenergy Research Program was created.

Launched in 2009, the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN) aims to advance and apply knowledge in areas related to the production of bioenergy in Brazil ( Over US$ 200 million have been granted for a community of  300 researchers in the State of São Paulo. The combination of cutting-edge applied research with high quality scientific production (over 1,300 published articles), leads to many examples of innovation and demonstrates the solid research network formed since the beginning of the program [7]. BIOEN is one of the main bioenergy research programs in the world, having played a fundamental role in consolidating Brazil as one of the world leaders in the area and generating significant achievements for the industry. BIOEN has also increased the articulation of researchers in transdisciplinary research, which directly impacts the quality of public policies being generated in the sector. As described below, documents coordinated by BIOEN have become an international reference for public policies and have placed BIOEN in high-level international agencies and bodies

Assessing research progress across the world

Under the leadership of researchers associated with the FAPESP Research Programs in Bioenergy (BIOEN), Biodiversity (BIOTA) and Climate Change (RPGCC), a research network focused on the main challenges of the advancement of Bioenergy, evaluated its performance against the need to achieve food, climate and environmental security while providing sustainable development and innovation. A total of 154 experts from 31 countries and 100 institutions led by BIOEN collaborated to analyze a series of issues related to the sustainability of bioenergy, production and use. This global scientific assessment on Bioenergy and Sustainability under the aegis of the Scientific Committee on Environmental Problems (SCOPE) was conducted using the RAP (Rapid Assessment Process) concept, and an international seminar was held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in December 2013. For the workshop 14 chapters on various aspects of sustainability were prepared that served as a basis to produce four chapters on cross-cutting issues important for public policies. All chapters have gone through a rigorous peer review process. The synthesis volume, totaling 700 pages with 2,000 references, as part of the SCOPE series is available in open access ( and already has more than 60,000 downloads. The group concludes that Bioenergy does not compete with food security, that there is enough land for significant expansion without prejudice to other uses, that there are measures and technologies for the preservation of ecosystems, that in fact the technologies have advanced significantly to increase efficiency, among others points.

The group’s activities are still ongoing, now in discussion forums that further international cooperation and produce reports on innovation (Mission Innovation), governance (Biofuture Platform), technologies (International Energy Agency), sustainability (GBEP), sustainable development (IRENA), among others.

Agriculture at BIOEN: big leaps for agronomy, breeding and biotechnology

Agriculture faces a number of challenges. Plant cultivation is subject to an environment in constant change and the producer lives an incessant search for greater productivity. More recently, the challenge of increasing productivity with greater sustainability has become mandatory. Today, sugarcane and soybean crops use various technologies to increase productivity resulting from BIOEN. We have the example of knowledge of the sugarcane genome, sequenced within the scope of BIOEN, and the development of genetics that advance improvement for drought tolerance, with patents licensed to companies in the sector. Another example relates to the production of healthy seedlings. Responding to the demand for healthy sugarcane seedlings and a certificate of genetic origin, a seedling production process was developed in bioreactors of bio-factories, with guarantee of origin and health with respect to three of the main bacterial diseases of the crop. These seedlings feed varietal multiplication cycles, such as those of pre-sprouted seedlings, already widely adopted in the sugarcane sector, which allow high gains in productivity and longevity.

The industry is also exploring new biomass materials that, within the scope of BIOEN, have been shown to be changed in their composition of lignin, facilitating the process of saccharification of biomass for the production of 2G ethanol. In addition to the increase in sugarcane plant production we have now new varieties of energy cane. The yields of these crops can reach 200 tons/ha, almost doubling the productivity. There are several examples of research for the generation of transgenic sugarcane in partnership with companies that, within the scope of BIOEN, are financed via PITEs (Research for Technological Innovation with the Industry), PIPEs (Research in Small Business) or licensing. Breeding for future climates is underway including for drought tolerance.

Agronomy research led to a review of the nutritional needs of sugarcane. BIOEN supported research on soil fertility and plant nutrition, soil management, pest and disease control, logistics, among others that allowed adjustments to recommendations for fertilization in order to improve yields and reduce emissions. The recommendations for micronutrients in sugarcane were revised as a result of studies developed at BIOEN that demonstrated the need to use greater amounts of various elements in fertilizing the crop, which had been neglected, compromising the productivity and longevity of crops. Mills have made adaptations to their machinery to make the new micronutrient fertilization recommendations feasible. In addition, companies have changed the composition of their products for sugarcane due to the new recommendations. Within the scope of the PIPE program we have many examples of new developments. In fact, agronomy stands out here as the most represented area, with over 50% of the projects approved. Several companies are dedicated to the application of Information technologies for agriculture, improving planning with Digital Agriculture, facilitating access to data or improving efficiency with autonomous management of the agricultural fleet at low cost. Cloud management systems are proposed to the sector allowing active real-time management of all Industry 4.0 equipment and solutions.

BIOEN technologies add productivity and sustainability with optimization of fermentation, separation and intensification of processes

Industrial processes based on BIOEN technologies are already in operation at industrial plants. The most consolidated conversion processes are based on the fermentation of C6 sugars to produce ethanol using Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the conventional or 1st Generation biofuel (fermentation of sugarcane juice). Within BIOEN, advances have been made in fermentation with optimization due to the evolutionary nature of the process, which can be both batch and continuous. Fermentation with high cell concentration and cell recycling is characteristic of the Brazilian process leading to high productivity and with the results of BIOEN it was demonstrated how to impact the fermentation productivity and the overall performance of the process, demonstrating how batch processes behave in relation to the continuous processes with vats in series. Kinetic studies pointed to the importance of fermentation temperature control. Several companies and plants have used systems with high cellular concentration and advances in the area of ​​automation and control resulting from BIOEN research.

An important step in the composition of the final cost of biofuel is the separation step, in the case of ethanol, when hydrated and anhydrous ethanol are produced. While hydrated ethanol already has a more consolidated process, the range of possible solutions for obtaining anhydrous ethanol has been extensively investigated in search of new developments. BIOEN has covered everything from azeotropic and extractive distillation processes to molecular sieves and important advances in distillation processes have been achieved that have gained notable impact in recent years. The impact of the application of different solvents and variants of distillation columns and ways of recycling the solvents was determined. Alternative solvents were also proposed that were less aggressive to the environment, replacing those that needed to be banned, such as hexane. Large-scale plants currently employ well-developed processes that are legally compliant using BIOEN technologies (azeotropic extraction). Some units already use molecular sieves in the dehydration stage with significant reductions in energy consumption and exemption from solvent residues in the product formed, meeting export criteria for some countries such as Japan. The projects supported by the BIOEN program in the application of molecular sieves are an example of innovation covering many angles (identification of adsorption and desorption cycles, impact of pore sizes, materials for hydrophobic or hydrophilic operation situations), for the diffusion of this technology and its energy and financial gains. Reduction in energy consumption of around 20% can be achieved. It is also worth mentioning the research applications of the BIOEN Program in the optimization of ethanol production plants in terms of reducing energy and water consumption, with a reduction of more than 20 times in some cases in water consumption for ethanol production.

Another biofuel of note in the BIOEN program is biodiesel, for which supported research shows that improvements can be obtained with the use of new processes such as reactive distillation and the use of process intensification, especially in the reaction stage. In the latter, the investigation of different raw materials in various projects allowed the identification of the most appropriate operational conditions for the different raw materials. The biodiesel industry is currently facing challenges to increase production to meet the growing demand and companies are already applying innovations in the sector to contribute to greater productivity and product quality. Thermochemical routes have also been investigated and are awaiting industrial implementation. Pulp and paper companies are already making pilot-scale developments for the production of synthesis gas. Another aspect of the thermochemical route is through the production of bio-oil for further processing or co-processing. The research supported by BIOEN in this matter allowed the elaboration of a project with the European Community (H2020) with the participation of Universities, Research Centers, and companies.

It is worth mentioning the research underway within the scope of the PIPE FAPESP Program, with the example of the development of a “kit” for a rapid method of quantification of active yeasts during the fermentation process, innovative in the national market and which allows the analysis of viable yeasts during the industrial fermentation at a much lower cost than the possibilities offered in the foreign market.

Bioproducts for direct use or as building blocks for high-value chemical compounds developed at BIOEN

Research in the biorefineries area showed how to obtain products with higher added value than ethanol, sugar and electricity, using the mature in operation 1st generation processes to produce ethanol. Using fractions C6 and C5 and lignin a series of products were obtained. The sugar fermentation route includes organic acids such as lactic and succinic acid for direct use or as building blocks for other chemical inputs and butanol. It is worth highlighting the importance that some of these acids have in health applications because they have specific characteristics that are not found in products obtained by petrochemical routes and the importance of using lignin that offers a wide range of applications for adhesives and components for resins, replacing petroleum products with final advantages. The chemical conversion of synthesis gas obtained from the sugarcane bagasse gasification also allows the production of a wide range of products. With fewer studies carried out, but showing great potential, the processes for producing bio-oil and biochar fit through the bagasse pyrolysis, which, in addition to the upgrade step, also makes it possible to obtain a series of chemical products.

BIOEN’s technologies for the development of green polyethylene, ethyl terbutyl ether (ETBE) and for the production of lactic acid polymers are already on an industrial scale. Research related to the industrial production of butanol also deserves consideration. In this context, thematic projects and the PITE line financed by BIOEN were fundamental for the evaluation of more efficient and robust microorganisms for fermentation, mainly in regards to homofermentative production to obtain lactic acid in separate L and D isomers, which allow the development of polymers with specific properties. The same can be said with respect to the production of Biobutanol, which in addition to the investigation and adaptation of more efficient microorganisms, has benefited from much research supported by the BIOEN program for the development of a new fermentation process including extraction. Regarding green polyethylene, BIOEN’s research of new catalysts and studies of new reactor configurations to obtain higher conversions and yields are worth mentioning. We also have several companies financed under the PIPE program developing bio-products including cellulose nanocrystals on an industrial pilot scale.

Engines for efficient use of biofuels

Dedicated engines for ethanol have altered the sugar and alcohol industry and decreased urban pollution. An engineering center was created and a conceptual study for an advanced ethanol engine is being developed to investigate the eventual replacement of the flex-fuel model. The conventional flex-fuel technology does not allow the technical characteristics of ethanol to be fully exploited, although these characteristics provide the flexibility required by consumers. If successful, the project will pioneer a niche market for ethanol engines whose efficiency will be very close to that of diesel engines. They will be able to replace small diesel engines for urban use (vans, SUVs, smaller trucks), thus reducing emissions of particulate matter in cities. Due to advances in engines, several vehicles with a new generation of Flex engines already indicate that the use of ethanol as a fuel is preferable.

Also noteworthy is the development of the first Ethanol Reformer in Brazil with characteristics of industrial equipment by a company financed by the PIPE Program. The production of renewable hydrogen is a worldwide challenge. The production of hydrogen from the ethanol reform is shown to be something feasible and very interesting to meet the goals of decarbonizing the global economy.

BIOEN puts ethanol as a global solution for mobility sustainability

Before BIOEN, the great potential of ethanol to mitigate CO2 emissions was not fully considered internationally, and when it was, the emission calculations often reflected little knowledge of the Brazilian biofuel production process. BIOEN has revised sugarcane GHG emissions with local data. BIOEN contributed data produced in Brazil on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to the use of fertilizers and sugarcane by-products. Previously, data were scarce and the indicators, quite negative, were based on results obtained mainly in other producing regions. Recent research shows that GHG emissions are generally lower than those mentioned and generally lower than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reference values ​​(N2O emission equivalent to 1% of the applied N contained in the inputs). However, the combination of straw, vinasse and nitrogen fertilizers, common in sugarcane management, can present higher emissions. Mitigation options, including the use of nitrification inhibitors added to fertilizers, transport management and vinasse channels have been demonstrated effective in sugarcane. The results of these basic surveys will be important as Renovabio expands (see below). For example, it will be possible to use N2O emission factors specific to the conditions for sugarcane cultivation in São Paulo (Tier 2 of the IPCC) in place of generic factors used in the absence of regional information. In addition, bioenergy producers will be able to guide their actions in order to reduce GHG emissions and increase the gains from decarbonization certificates provided in the RENOVABIO legislation.

Recent research efforts have also made it possible to understand the microbial processes involved in emissions in sugarcane cultivation systems, including important by-products such as vinasse, which may help in the search for mitigating solutions.

Regarding the use of vinasse, it is worth highlighting the new developments within a company financed by the PIPE Program that aims to decrease the polluting power of vinasse, increase its pH and decrease the corrosion caused by it, while reducing costs and producing with it diesel oil and defoamers at the plants. The company uses an yeast capable of transforming organic compounds and pollutants from vinasse into oil. This oil is converted into biodiesel and defoamers. The plants consume an average of 3L of diesel/ton of cane, which represents about 3% of all diesel consumed in the country. In addition, the average consumption of defoamers by the plants is 0.6g / L of ethanol, which represents 16.8 million kilos per year at an average cost of R$ 14.00 per kilo. Combining impacts, the technology has the potential to increase profits while reducing the environmental impact and dependence on oil.

Major advances have also been made in understanding how the ban on pre-harvest fires and the advent of mechanical harvesting and straw maintenance affects the carbon stock in the soil and can mitigate emissions associated with changing land use for the cultivation of sugarcane.

The implications of maintaining versus harvesting straw for the system’s sustainability have also been explored, offering important inputs for decision making.

Research carried out with sugar cane meeting sustainability criteria and calculating the emission of greenhouse gases was necessary to show the importance of biofuels in the energy matrix and their impact on the environment. Due to the advances in these methodologies, it became an industrial practice in several companies, including oil companies (such as Shell, Petrobras, Exxon) to create research programs and future action plans that lead to mitigation of greenhouse gas generation.

BIOEN contributes to the definition of areas for the expansion of sustainable bioenergy in the world

We estimate that in 25 countries from Latin America and Africa a total of 437 Mton of sugarcane could be produced every year using only 1% of their pastureland. A total of 500–900 million hectares of land are available for bioenergy production without compromising food security and biodiversity. About 50Mt CO2eq of avoided emissions could be achieved if ethanol production and use were to be adopted, promoting domestic use and trade of surpluses, bringing positive impacts in several levels [8].

The prospects for expanding sustainable bioenergy have been expanded with studies on aeronautical biofuels and the potential of bioenergy from sugar cane in Latin America and Africa. With the Sustainable Aviation Biofuels for Brazil (SABB) project, developed with the support of FAPESP and direct support from Embraer and Boeing, involving dozens of Brazilian and foreign institutions, the various possibilities of raw materials and conversion processes, the conditions logistical and regulatory aspects and socioeconomic and environmental impacts, pointing out positive scenarios for aeronautical biofuels in Brazil and worldwide. Indeed, in global terms, interest in the use of bioenergy in aviation is growing, including with the progressive implementation of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, CORSIA initiative, developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO / UN) to mitigate the GHG emissions in air transport.

In a different direction, several developing countries, located in tropical regions with adequate climate and availability of arable land to promote the sustainable production of bioenergy (especially sugarcane) have not yet developed this potential. Seeking to understand the local context in countries in Latin America and Africa, and in the spirit proposed by the Global Sustainable Bioenergy, the LACAf project (Bioenergy Contribution of Latin America & Caribbean and Africa to the GSB Project), financed by FAPESP, identified resources, assessed demands, impacts and restrictions to promote the modern energy agribusiness in these countries, analyzing in more detail the cases of Mozambique, Colombia and Guatemala and signaling perspectives of clear interest for sustainable development. Countries that have the capacity to produce sugarcane in commercial quantities can certainly make use of the very successful Brazilian experience in co-generating electricity from sugarcane bagasse, as demonstrated by the park of more than 50% of Brazilian plants that have in their product portfolio electric energy, in addition to sugar and ethanol. Several researches supported by the BIOEN program brought fundamental information that guided cogeneration companies in the definition of high-pressure boilers and the use of a condensing turbine to recover low pressure steam.

BIOEN contributes for the development of policy: The Renovabio example

This enormous body of research carried out within the BIOEN program serves as a reference for decision making regarding investments and strategies of companies and for policy making.

We should mention Renovabio, a new legislation for the biofuel sector that had the participation of BIOEN researchers in its development. In 2017, to comply with its annual decarbonization targets assumed at COP21, Brazil established Law 13.576/2017, a State policy that aims to draw up a joint strategy to recognize the strategic role of all types of biofuels in the Brazilian energy matrix. It encourages energy efficiency gains in biofuels production and use, and creates a market mechanism to reduce the carbon footprint of biofuels. With RenovaBio, the Brazilian government plans to increase ethanol production from the current 30 billion liters to around 50 billion liters by 2030 and raise biodiesel from 4 billion to 13 billion liters in the same period. The program is a market-based incentive with issuance of GHG emissions reduction certificates, named “CBio” (a Decarbonization Credit) to producers that can be traded in the stock market and purchased by fuel distributors. One CBio corresponds to a reduction of one ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq), in comparison to fossil fuel emissions and in order to get that, biofuels production will be certified through a life cycle analysis (LCA).

RenovaCalc is the tool for calculating the carbon intensity of biofuels of Renovabio. It was released in May 2018 and works as calculator aiming to prove the environmental performance of the production by biofuels mills. The RenovaCalc accept about ten different technological routes to carry out the calculation of efficiency, in which each of the biofuels included in the RenovaBio is included – ethanol, biodiesel, biokerosene and biomethane. Each producer should detail information about their agricultural and manufacturing processes, such as the system of plantation used, fuel consumption, agrochemical consumption, land use, such as adequate for a life cycle analysis (LCA). The total emission is compared to that of the fossil fuel equivalent (ethanol should be compared to gasoline and biodiesel to diesel) and at the end the calculator generates a final grade which represents the emission mitigation. This grade becomes a multiplying factor when the CBios are emitted.

We expect that Renovabio will be a source of continuous improvements in the sector and an example, if successful, on how to stimulate a low carbon economy. To learn more we take the opportunity to invite Elephant in the Lab readers to attend the BBEST-Biofuture Conference!


I would like to thank the members of the FAPESP BIOEN Coordination Committee Heitor Cantarella, Rubens Maciel Filho, Luis Cassinelli and Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira and FAPESP Scientific Director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz for helpful discussions. This work was funded by State of São Paulo Foundation (FAPESP) Process 2018/16098-3, 2016/12804-5 and 2012/23765-0.