In the last few years, the U.S. leads the world in production of biofuels, but other nations like Brazil are close on our heals.
In 2008, the U.S. produced 9 billion gallons of fuel ethanol. Brazil was the second world ethanol heavyweight producing almost 6.5 billion gallons. Every other country produced less than a billion – the European Union countries produced 773 million, China 502 million, Canada 238 million, with Thailand, Colombia, India and Australia each less than 100 million gallons of ethanol a year.
All together, the world produced over 17 billion gallons of ethanol in 2008. But, that still accounts for only 2.2 percent of the global fuel supply. Oil is still king, but ethanol is growing.
While the U.S. is the largest consumer, other countries have developed their own methods of production and use.
- In France, ethanol is produced from grapes that are of insufficient quality for wine.
- In Sweden, ethanol has been used in the production of chemicals for years. As a result, the country’s consumption of crude oil has been cut in half since 1980.
- In India, companies that traditionally distill beverage alcohol are using surplus alcohol as a fuel blend.
- Germany is the largest producer of biodiesel fuels. Their producers chemically alter canola oil to be burned in German trucks and cars. The fuel is a little more expensive and it requires a lot of fossil fuel to make, but biodiesel produces 68 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.
Brazil is one of the most interesting examples of ethanol adoption. In the 1970s, the OPEC oil embargo prompted the government to subsidize ethanol. They also offered tax incentives for Brazilian car makers to build vehicles that could burn straight, 100 percent ethanol. By the mid-80s, nearly all cars sold in Brazil ran exclusively on ethanol.
Brazil makes its ethanol from the abundant sugar cane that grows quickly in the tropical climate. Cane is 20 percent sugar and the whole plant can be fermented into alcohol. Corn, on the other hand, locks up its sugar in complex starches in the kernels that have to be broken down by expensive enzymes before fermentation. Sugar cane fields yield between 600 and 800 gallons of ethanol per acre, more than twice as much as corn.
In the 90s, however, high sugar prices and low oil prices reduced the demand for ethanol. Today, 85 percent of Brazilian cars are “flex fuel” vehicles that can sense and run on any mixture of ethanol and gasoline.
Todd Sneller (left), the administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board, says that Brazil has some natural advantages. “They’re a temperate climate,” he notes. “They produce several crops of sugar per year. Because it’s a very big country, they have a lot of land mass to work with.”
Todd says that recent developments emphasize that biofuels have become a global market. “There’s an interesting trend that I see in 2007, and that is the acquisition by some U.S. firms of Brazilian ethanol companies,” he says. “Multinational companies who deal in commodities view ethanol just as any other commodity. It will go wherever its highest value will be realized. So, I think we’re going to see ethanol viewed in a much more global sense as we go into the future.”
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.