Exports of fuel alcohol produced from sugarcane, a renewable energy source, will be worth two billion dollars in 2004, an increase of almost 300 percent over last year.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Rising oil prices and the upcoming implementation of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases, following the recent ratification by Russia, are accelerating the process by which Brazil is confirming its position as a world leader in ''bio-energy''.
Exports of alcohol made from sugarcane are expected to increase from 800 million liters last year to two billion liters this year, and the expansion trend is maintained independently of world oil prices.
There are many countries, like Japan, that are moving to blend ethanol with gasoline, or increase the alcohol additives in fuel, as a means towards curbing air pollution.
It augurs for renewable energy sources having a strong global impulse with the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets goals for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, responsible for climate change.
The Russian Senate announced its ratification of the global treaty Oct. 27. Once it is signed by the Russian president, the Kyoto Protocol will enter into force, as it has finally achieved the required threshold of countries: a total that produces at least 55 percent of the world's greenhouse gases.
In Brazil, renewable fuel is recuperating the popularity it had in the 1980s, and not just because of the lower price. There is a growing demand for ''bi-fuel'' automobiles that can use gasoline, fuel alcohol or any mix of the two. These cars were put on the market last year.
In 1985 and 1986, alcohol-fuelled vehicles had achieved the incredible proportion of 76 percent of all of Brazil's car production. But supply and price problems eroded the Proalcohol program for fuel substitution, begun with the petroleum crisis of 1973.
Output of alcohol-driven cars hit bottom in 1997 -- just 0.06 percent of total car production, according to Brazil's National Association of Automotive Manufacturers.
Since then there has been a gradual recovery, which was particularly notable last year, with 84,173 alcohol-fuelled cars, including the bi-fuel vehicles, represented 4.6 of automotive production. This year that portion is expected to be five times as big, as 253,817 such cars were produced from January through September.
The possibility of using one fuel or another, along with the reasonable price, contributes to public confidence in alcohol as a fuel in general. It reduces the risk of shortages or sudden price hikes at service stations.
In addition, all gasoline in Brazil contains 20 to 25 percent anhydrous alcohol, which reduces petroleum dependency and pollution. And work is beginning on manufacturing crop spraying aircraft that run on ethanol.
The subsidized development of Proalcohol cost some 40 billion dollars, but the country has ''already recovered those expenses'' and is now seeing its fruits, including the continued development of related technology, Osvaldo Stella Martins, an expert with the National Center for Biomass Research, told Tierramérica.
The sugarcane needed to make Brazil the world leader in sugar and alcohol production also generates enormous quantities of waste pulp, a source of energy that feeds the electricity market as well as running the sugar mills and distilleries.
Now the new biodiesel program is motivating researchers and business leaders. The government announced that it will authorize its addition to regular diesel fuel in November, in a proportion of two percent and increasing to five percent over the next few years.
Beyond reducing the need to import fuel and curbing environmentally harmful emissions, the program is intended to be socially inclusive, generating hundreds of thousands of jobs and promoting family farming in impoverished areas, says Science and Technology Minister Eduardo Campos.
It is also a government priority to promote production of fuel using the castorbean (Ricinus communis) in the Brazilian northeast, the country's poorest region. But biodiesel made from castorbeans must be more heavily subsidized, as it costs three times more than petroleum, said Stella, a mechanical engineer who holds a doctorate in ecology and natural resources.
Castor oil, the raw material for hundreds of chemical, medicinal and cosmetic products, has great unsatisfied global demand, and it would be more logical to promote its production as an industrial input, instead of using it for biodiesel and burdening society with the cost of subsidies in order to ''resolve a problem for Petrobras,'' the giant state-run oil company, he said.
The problem is that Petrobras must produce diesel without sulfur, for environmental protection reasons, and it would be better to substitute that lubricant with biodiesel, transferring costs to society, explained the expert.
Studies are under way for producing biodiesel using other plant sources, and even from the vegetable oil waste in cities, such as from food processing and restaurant cooking.
The alternative that most excites Stella and forestry engineer Laercio Couto, president of the National Network for Biomass Energy, is to make use of agricultural and forestry waste.
Lumber production uses 45 percent of the tree, leaving ''incredible'' biomass sources, Couto told Tierramérica.
The lumber waste is packed into cylinders to reduce volume and humidity, and to facilitate transport, and is exports to Europe are beginning. But last year just 40,000 tons were sold, while the demand reaches two million tons, the engineer added.
Brazil, with its land, sun, and water resources, is a major producer of biomass, and the process of photosynthesis makes the South American country an energy superpower, according to José Bautista Vidal, the ''father'' of Proalcohol.
However, the great distances and insufficient infrastructure that make transportation expensive continue to create obstacles in the energy business beyond local production and use, Couto said.