Brazil, India can steer global transport towards biofuels

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29 April 2022, New Delhi: Brazil has spearheaded some of the paradigm shifts in the field of biofuels, especially bioethanol, way before they became an urgent necessity because of climate change. Biofuels have been a part of Brazil’s National Energy policies for nearly half a century. As a result, the country’s experience of creating an ethanol economy has the potential to support others in developing their strategies and selecting the best pathways to be adopted for successfully integrating ethanol into the fuel economy.

The ethanol economy received a renewed push by the affordable and simple technological novelty of the “flex engine” disseminated in Brazil after 2003, which allows the same vehicle to be powered by 100 per cent ethanol or petrol, or any intermediary mix of the two. 

In an effort to green the transportation sector, there is an increasing trend towards electrification of vehicles, which is often misleadingly synonymised with one of its options — battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs). However, ethanol is a meaningful solution for electric vehicles too.

Solid Oxide Fuel Cell technology — which converts ethanol into electricity to power vehicles — has proven to be far more energy efficient and environment-friendly than Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). Sugarcane ethanol has higher energy density than batteries, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are significantly less considering the whole energy cycle (‘well-to-wheel’). 

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Unfortunately, some misinformation has been raised by those located in regions that cannot benefit from a tropical agriculture, who invested heavily in high-tech solutions even if they reduce emissions less than ethanol does. In this sense, the myth that using feedstock for biofuels production undermines food security has been an important deterrent to the large-scale adoption of ethanol. 

However, as the Brazilian experience has shown, sugarcane ethanol has, in fact, been able to reduce land competition between food and fuel with improved crop yields and expansion of production on degraded pastures. 

Major sugarcane producers

Since blending petrol with sugarcane ethanol can lower GHG emissions up to 90 per cent and sugarcane only needs to be replanted every five to six years (thus, capturing larger amounts of carbon than any other feedstock crop), the high-octane ethanol fuel can play a pivotal role in fighting climate change — the real threat to food security. 

Brazil and India are two major developing economies where agriculture forms the backbone of their respective economies. Being tropical countries, the two largest producers of sugarcane in the world are, therefore, well poised to spearhead together ethanol as a global commodity and pave the way for a new international market that favours developing countries in the first place. 

India has already advanced its target of 20 per cent blending of ethanol in petrol (E20) by five years to 2025 and the adoption of flex-fuel automobiles will certainly be a game changer.

Recognising the scope of bilateral cooperation in this domain, Brazil and India signed three MoUs in the field of bioenergy cooperation when our leaders met in New Delhi in January 2020. The first meeting of the joint working group on bioenergy was held in 2021.

To spur constant cross-learning on the production, regulatory and technological aspects of ethanol supply chains, several bilateral initiatives have been organised by Brazilian and Indian institutions from the government and the private sector.

Energy transition through biofuels is a great opportunity to create and modernise industries, boost technological innovation, attract investment and generate high quality jobs — all the while contributing to sustainable development and to the quality of life of future generations around the world. 

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