Building on biofuel production opportunities

The challenge for ACP countries is to find resources for large-scale biofuel production Copyright: CGIAR/ICRISAT

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Biofuel production offers a lifeline to sugar-producing countries hit by the European Union’s 2006 sugar reforms, argues Maureen Wilson.

Sugarcane is the most efficient plant in terms of biomass production and Caribbean countries have considerable experience in making use of even the plant’s leftover fibre, known as bagasse, after processing.

The technology needed to break down these recalcitrant cellulose fibres is expensive, but it is developing rapidly and within five years should be much cheaper.

The use of crop residues for energy purposes, rather than the crop itself will reduce objections to growing crops for fuel instead of for food.

Improvements at the laboratory scale

Scientists are searching for new enzymes to degrade cellulose in plant material — for example, from coniferous wood, agricultural waste and wheat straw — into sugars. They aim to create new yeast strains and produce synergistically acting enzyme mixtures that can convert cellulose sugars into ethanol more efficiently and, if possible, produce more useful by-products.

At the same time, engineers and process-control technicians are developing systems to reduce the amount of energy used in producing bioethanol and to achieve an energy efficiency of 95 per cent, compared with 46 per cent by traditional methods.

The biotechnology company Renessen has tested a genetically modified maize hybrid that, when combined with a novel dry-corn separation technique, results in a more easily fermentable medium. This will increase the profitability of maize for growers and boost ethanol yield.

Brazil’s biosafety commission has given approval for the Centre for Cane Technology to start field trials on a transgenic cane with a sucrose content at least 15 per cent higher than the conventional variety. The Indian government has declared that it will open discussions with Brazil with a view to sharing the technology.

Possibilities on the international scale

The European Union (EU) produces enough biodiesel from rapeseed oil and bioethanol from beet sugar to meet only about three per cent of its needs — an opportunity for African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries linked to the EU by trade and aid agreements to supply bioethanol and biodiesel to their long-time trading partners.

ACP countries need to be aggressive in searching for new technologies for producing biofuels in a cost-effective and sustainable way, because this would propel them into energy self-sufficiency and provide or save foreign exchange.

More countries are introducing regulations for the transportation industry to use gasoline mixed with ethanol. ACP governments must put in place legislation mandating local production and use of biofuels — for example, compulsory addition of ethanol to gasoline would provide a domestic market for bioethanol as well as saving on gasoline. Development and implementation of policy options for the promotion of bioenergy is vital to the success of the biofuel industry.

Such legislation has been the driving force behind the rapid growth of Brazil’s bioethanol industry and is stimulating the industry in the United States. Mauritius’s policy of phasing out coal as a supplementary fuel for generating electricity, to be replaced by solid biofuel and ethanol, has boosted the industry.

Optimising biofuel potential

Strict management is required to achieve maximum yields and high productivity of bioethanol. For example, rapidly increasing fertiliser prices could lead to under-usage. Likewise, efficient water collection and management is important to maximise production.

Removal of crop residues can harm soil structure, promote erosion and damage the ecosystem. Strategies for managing crop residues must be developed for sustainability.

The challenge for ACP countries is to find resources for large-scale biofuel production by buying into the best technology and processes available.

But they cannot afford to fund these projects themselves. The Brazilian government is advocating partnerships in biofuel production between developed and developing countries to alleviate poverty, speed rural progress and reduce greenhouse gases. A handful of bilateral agreements have already been signed.

As more countries embark on the production and export of biofuels to meet the demands of developed countries, standardisation becomes urgent. Brazil and the United States are responsible for 70 per cent of global ethanol production and are working together to create a worldwide standard for ethanol, defining acceptable levels of impurities and solid residues.

Bioethanol is made from starch and sugar and biodiesel is made from different kinds of vegetable oils, so it is important that standards are developed for certification even as the world awaits the mass production of ethanol from cellulose material.

The World Trade Organization needs to set rules and standards for biofuel trading, whether as agricultural, industrial or even environmental goods. Scientists in ACP countries must be prepared to advise governments and participate in this process.

Learning from past oversights

These are exciting times for ACP countries, especially the sugar producers, as opportunities become available for production of agro-energy crops and for converting agricultural wastes to biofuels. A new cycle of prosperity is possible, but there is a need to reflect on lessons learnt in the past.

The opportunity to diversify and participate in new markets can result in social and rural development, because biofuel industries increase employment, generate income, provide energy security, infrastructure and training, and develop, human resources and skills capacity.

But biofuel development will require careful management and support from the public sector.

It is crucial that governments put in place the necessary legislation for use of domestically produced biofuel. This will also give investors the stamp of approval.

Strategic alliances should be sought with enzyme-producing companies, biotechnology firms, large energy-related corporations and, of course, where possible with the ethanol biofuel world leader, Brazil, whose government is keen to share its expertise with other developing countries.

Maureen. R. Wilson, is chemist/laboratory manager at the Sugar Industry Research Institute, Jamaica.

This article is a shortened version of a paper, ‘Biofuels – S&T Strategic Options for ACP Countries’, published by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU), on whose knowledge for development website the full article can be viewed.

This article is part of a Spotlight on The biofuels revolution.