Sugarcane: Ethanol, Electricity and More

The use of ethanol as transportation fuel started together with the automobile industry in combustion engines type Otto cycle [1]. During the beginning of the 20th century with the rise of cheap fossil fuel, the ethanol was set aside for a long period. After the oil crisis in the 1973 Brazil initiated the ethanol program. The government started to offer incentives for the industries to produce ethanol and at the same time the automobile industries in the country started developing new technologies for the engines moved by ethanol. Since 1976 there is no automobile running with pure gasoline because the government established that it should be mixed with ethanol in a proportion varying from 10 to 25%. Until 1986 most cars sold in Brazil were moved by ethanol, but after the sugar price increased around the world the gasoline became attractive again. At the beginning of 21st century the predicted scarcity and high prices of fossil fuels lead the companies to invest in ethanol production again. Together new revolutionary technologies originated Flex-fuel vehicles which can run in ethanol, gasoline or any mix of the two [2].

Ethanol can be produced using sugarcane, corn, yucca or beet. Sugarcane is the cheapest raw material for ethanol production. According to [3] it costs 3-5 times more to produce from beet or corn. In 2007 the average cost to produce ethanol from sugarcane was $0.28 per liter and from corn was $0.45 per liter. The percentage of reduction in gas emissions with sugarcane ethanol was 66% compared to only 12% with the corn ethanol. Also, the sugarcane produces 3 times more ethanol by area than corn. As seen in [4], in 2006, the American industry of corn ethanol production is only viable because of a government subside of $4.1 billion.

The sugarcane as raw material can contribute to the production of renewable energy in another way because its bagasse can be used as a fuel or as the cogeneration of electric energy [5]. Until early 90’s the sugarcane bagasse was considered a problem for the ethanol industries. The sub-product of ethanol production was given for free by the companies which wanted to get rid of it. For each ton of sugar cane used for ethanol production approximately 250kg remain as bagasse. Nowadays bagasse is utilized for many purposes such as animal food, organic fertilizer and electricity generation. Moreover, recent researches indicate the possibility of using the sugar cane straw to generate electricity. There exists a perspective in Brazil that between the years of 2020 – 2021 the electricity production capacity using the sugar cane bagasse and straw will reach approximately 29 GW [6]!

Besides all that, recently, a portion of the sugarcane bagasse is compressed in pellets [7] and it is exported to many countries for electricity generation. Another important project is the use of ethanol as fuel for thermal generation turbines. In 2009, Petrobras started to test the use of the renewable fuel in an existing gas thermal plant. This conversion represents the first thermal plant in the world that uses ethanol as fuel with a generation capacity of 42 MW [8].


[1] Technical Feasibility and Economic Viability of Sugarcane Ethanol, Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels, 2009.

[2] Ethanol Fuel in Brazil –

[3] A.A. Bosso, M.L. Machado, Álcool da Cana ou do Milho?, Revista Ciências do Meio Ambiente, 2006 (Portuguese)

[4] C. Andreoli, S.P. de Souza, Cana de Açúcar: A Melhor Alternativa para Conversão da Energia Solar e Fóssil em Etanol, Economia e Energia, 2007 (Portuguese).

[5] T.S.G. Lee, E.A. Bressan, The Potencial of Ethanol Production from Sugarcane in Brazil, Sugar Tech, 2006

[6]Bagaço da cana, “resíduo” cada vez mais lucrative (Portuguese) –,0.htm

[7] Brazil biomass Pellets Sugarcane –

[8]Etanol no Brasil –



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2 responses to “Sugarcane: Ethanol, Electricity and More

  1. rnicholson78712

    It seems as if the United States is starting to have a more favorable view towards sugarcane ethanol from Brazil and the rest of South America for its energy policy. Recently, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled that sugarcane ethanol is “an advanced renewable fuel,” [1] meaning that sugarcane is certified to lower greenhouse gas emissions by more than fifty percent compared to conventional gasoline, which is the minimum percentage necessary to be classified as an EPA advanced renewable fuel [2].

    According to the EPA, studies show that Brazilian sugarcane ethanol can reduce such gasoline emissions by sixty-one percent [2]. From the perspective of other renewable fuels, corn-based ethanol is classified as a non-advanced renewable fuel as it only reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, barely meeting the EPA requirement to be simply a “renewable fuel” [1]. Biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol are classified as an advanced renewable fuel like sugarcane [1]. With the exception of cellulosic ethanol, which comes from sources like switchgrass and corn stover, sugarcane ethanol shows the most promise in reducing greenhouse gas emissions according to the EPA [1].

    With the addition of sugarcane ethanol as an advanced renewable fuel, surpassing the utility that corn ethanol offers, this would certainly upset many politicians, lobbyists and farmers that represent the Midwestern, corn-growing states. That would partly explain why the United States has a 30% tariff on Brazilian ethanol imports, which has deterred US investment in sugarcane ethanol in the past [3]. Ironically, Peru, which has a smaller sugarcane-ethanol industry, has no US tariffs against its ethanol and can export it to the US without tax [5].

    Recently, however, investor sentiment has changed. For example, Shell has established a joint-venture with Brazilian sugar giant Cosan to double output of ethanol from Brazil and to import it to the US and Europe [4]. With the addition of sugarcane ethanol as an advanced renewable fuel, the US should expect more investment and focus on Brazil and other sugarcane-growing regions since, as the original post states, is far more efficient and cheaper to produce than corn ethanol. In addition, observers should not be surprised if the EPA or other departments recommend the removal of the existing tariffs against Brazilian ethanol to the chagrin of many Midwestern, corn states.

    Overall, the EPA’s decision to classify sugarcane ethanol as an “advanced renewable fuel” is a welcoming decision for America’s new energy policy. Based on the statistics, it does not make sense to cling to corn ethanol, especially when it is only viable through expensive subsidies and unreasonable tariffs against more efficient, more environmentally friendly fuels. Despite all the comparative advantages of sugarcane ethanol, I doubt whether the current administration and politicians from the corn-growing regions want to risk electoral defeat by making such a policy shift against corn ethanol in favor of sugarcane and other renewable energy sources that will most probably hurt their local economies and their constituents.


    [1]: United States: EPA’s Final Renewable Fuel Standard Rule: Winners And Losers–12 February, 2010:

    [2]: “US decision on sugarcane ethanol expected to boost Brazilian industry”–4 February, 2010:

    [3]: “Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association Stresses Need for Brazil’s Government to Announce Ethanol Import Tariff Cut as Soon as Possible”–9 February 2010:

    [4]: “Royal Dutch Shell eyes ethanol market outside Brazil”–1 February 2010:

    [5]: “Coming Soon: Peru Sugar Cane Ethanol Exports to the U.S”–23 February 2009:

  2. DevinQ

    From my understanding of ethanol fuels, while it seems benefictial for the many reasons you listed, there are still many drawbacks. For example, all the sources used for ethanol could be used for food. In a world where 15 million children die a year [1] because of starvation, it always seemed a little ridiculous to me that a food source would be used to power our cars and Ipods instead of feeding the hungry.
    Also, the amount of energy output is signficantly less from ethanol fuels than traditional fuel. Usually, ethanol fuels only get around 30-40 percent of the mileage than conventional fossil fuels [2]. Because of the decrease in milage, a larger amount of ethanol sources would be needed to supply enough energy to compensate for fossil fuels. That increase in farming leads to detrimental effects land. For everyone gallon of ethanol made from corn, a total of 20 pounds of soil are washed away from the loss of nutrients due to the corn. [3] According to the Rathbun Rural Water Association that planting corn in land that is extremely susceptable to water erosion is the equivalent to emptying 6,200 dump trunks full of silt into the land, which is four times the acceptable amount. [3]
    However, I do agree that there are many benefits to using a ethanol mixture. But personally I tend to lean towards solutions that don’t cause such a secondary threat to people, such as wind power and hydroelectric. While no solution is perfect, I feel that ethanol can fix an immediate problem but eventually cause a much larger one.


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