Petrobras-Novozymes deal expands cellulosic ethanol research in Brazil

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A recent agreement between Brazilian state-run oil giant Petrobras and Danish biotech company Novozymes strengthens an emerging trend in the sugarcane industry towards partnerships for the development of second-generation ethanol. According to Alfred Szwarc, Emissions and Technology Consultant from the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (Unica), “these agreements open up new technological development possibilities, and to have Petrobras in this process is exciting because it has developed a cellulosic ethanol project of its own,” explains Szwarc.
Novozymes has studied cellulosic ethanol since 1997 in partnership with the Sugarcane Technology Center (CTC), an organization maintained by the sugarcane industry and aimed at the study of sugarcane genetics in Brazil. More recently, Novozymes also sealed an agreement with Dedini, a top supplier of sugarcane processing mills and relatd equipment, with clients in over 40 countries.
The Petrobras-Novozyme partnership, sealed in early October, will be valid for two years, explains João Noschang Neto, Manager for Technological Growth at Petrobras Biofuels. He adds, “This is a technology cooperation project; its objective is to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of the cellulosic ethanol production process through the optimization of enzymes.”
Enzymes are responsible for breaking down the residue from sugarcane bagasse, corn husks, wheat straw and wood chips, which are fermented for ethanol production. Petrobras has carried out studies on the conversion of sugarcane bagasse into ethanol through biochemical processes since 2006.

Market Differential

The market potential for renewable fuels in Brazil and the enormous amount of sugarcane bagasse available in the domestic market are the principal factors driving the development of projects aimed at second-generation ethanol in the country. Alfred Szwarc says Brazil's competitive advantages for producing first and second generation ethanol are what attracts biotechnology companies to the country: “Key among these advantaages, in the short term, is the fact that with cellulosic ethanol, Brazil will increase its productive capacity by 30% without having to expand its agricultural frontiers.”

Szwarc predicts that technological improvements in ethanol production in Brazil should double productivity. “Today, using first generation technology, the country produces, on average, 7,000 liters of ethanol per hectare (ha) of sugarcane. With consolidated technology, using bagasse and straw, the productivity per hectare can rise to as much as 14,000 liters,” he explains.

Enzymatic Route

To cut cellulosic ethanol production costs, in February of this year Novozymes launched a family of enzymes called “Cellic CTec2,” considered the most competitive on the market. To develop the “Cellic,” the company received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, which earmarked $29.3 million for the project. “It took ten years of research for us to achieve these results,” highlights Pedro Luiz Fernandes, President of Novozymes for Latin America.

In recent years, companies in the two largest renewable fuels producers and consumrs in the world, Brazil and the United States, have been the top investors in second-generation ethanol research. “Today in the United States, there are mills producing cellulosic ethanol at a pre-industrial scale. Shortly, Brazil will have one or more of this type of venture. Our studies are quite advanced and in the fine tuning stage,” reveals Fernandes

In Brazil, a small demonstration unit for second generation ethanol production is already functioning in the city of Piracicaba (SP). With a daily production capacity of about 1,000 liters of cellulosic ethanol, the plant is the result of an agreement between Novozymes and the CTC. In the future, the intention is to integrate this plant with a traditional cane processing mill operating in the country. “I believe this process should be concluded at the end of 2012,” reveals Nilson Boeta, CEO of CTC.

The Vice-President of Technology and Development at Dedini, José Luiz Olivério, adds that the deal with Novozymes, although still in the early stages, should leade to the implementation and integration of a demonstration unit with a Brazilian mill. “First, however, we need a detailed investment study, to quantify the amount of bagasse to be used and the liters of ethanol to be generated.”


Tags: biofuels, enzymes, cellulosic biofuels