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ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: Biodiesel Comes in All Flavours

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 8 2006 (IPS) - The production of biodiesel from low-quality coffee, from the oils extracted from urban runoff, or from cattle fat is a pioneering initiative in Brazil, where efforts are under way to diversity the raw materials used as clean fuels, the consumption of which is on the rise.

Under the Brazilian system for the voluntary addition of two percent biofuel to petroleum diesel (B-2), the demand currently stands at about 800 million litres annually. This mixture will be obligatory beginning in 2008, and the proportion will rise to five percent in 2013, driving up total biodiesel consumption to an estimated 2.5 billion litres a year.

Coffee beans of lower quality, which represent about 20 percent of the national coffee harvest, are emerging as an alternative raw material for biodiesel.

The idea to make use of the “defective” beans, withdrawing them from the coffee market, has as its “first objective the improvement of the quality of Brazilian coffee exported and consumed domestically,” explained Almir José da Silva Filho, president of the coffee industry association, Sindicafé, in the state of Minas Gerais.

The technical viability of the project has been proved in the laboratory, says Leandro Soares de Oliveira, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, which is conducting the experiments under an agreement with Sindicafé.

Next will be to expand the tests to a commercial scale, with industrial equipment already available on the market – a phase that should be complete next year, he said.

It is also essential to ensure the project’s economic viability, given that the coffee that should be discarded is still sold at a price higher than that of biodiesel, Sindicafé’s Da Silva added.

The Brazilian public sector, the instant coffee industry and some importing countries are the big buyers of lower quality coffee beans.

Energy production from biodiesel produced from coffee would help regulate the market to the benefit of all, but Da Silva predicts there will be controversy before convincing everyone along the chain of the coffee economy.

Production of coffee-based biodiesel for a company’s own use is one option, because it would be cheaper than biofuel purchased at service stations, and the organisation of coffee growers in cooperatives and associations facilitates this alternative, said university researcher Oliveira.

Every 100 kilogrammes of coffee can produce 12 kg of oil, which can be turned into 9 kg of biodiesel. The output is limited compared to soybeans and some other oil sources, but low-quality coffee is a raw material already available, making the process less expensive, Oliveira noted.

Oil from urban runoff has also been proved as a “good quality” raw material for biodiesel, according to the analysis by a German laboratory, says Luciano Basto, an engineering researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where this option is being studied.

The project suffered a delay due to the lack of an agreement with the local sanitation agency, and it wasn’t until recently that the equipment was installed at a wastewater treatment station in Rio de Janeiro, which will allow the assessment of its economic feasibility in the next six months, said Basto.

Making use of urban waste is recommended because it is immediately available and it benefits the environment. Converting oil from runoff into fuel would stimulate basic sanitation in Brazil, where less than half the population has access to sewage systems.. This alternative could also generate carbon credits for trading in greenhouse gas abatement schemes.

Total national runoff theoretically represents a potential for producing 1.5 billion liters of biodiesel annually, but in reality only 40 percent should be considered, because that is how much runoff currently is collected by sanitation systems, according to the researcher.

Fat from cattle is another promising raw material. In this case, the technology has been imported from Italy, where it has been used for some time. The company Ponte Di Ferro is ready to begin production, but bureaucratic questions have put the brakes on the project, the firm’s director Carlos Zveibil Neto told Tierramérica.

The surplus of animal fat on the market would allow production of biodiesel that is about 10 percent cheaper than soy-based fuel, a considerable advantage in the energy market. An estimated 23 million head of cattle are consumed in Brazil each year, which could produce 350 million litres of fuel from animal fat annually.

But this is a raw material that is rendered useless within 24 hours, that is, it becomes so acidic that after one day it is more appropriate for making soap than for biodiesel. This is why rapid transport or treatment plants near meatpacking factories is so essential, explained Zveibil Neto.

The diversification of raw materials for production of clean fuels – currently concentrated in soybeans – would help make the most of regional advantages, as is the case, for example, of palm oil in the Amazon, or castor-oil in the Brazilian Northeast.

“The market will decide which raw materials are viable after some time,” said Orlando Cristiano da Silva, an expert with the national biomass research centre, associated with the University of Sao Paulo.

(*Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent. Originally published July 1 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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