At an event organized by the Brazil Energy Transition Group, a European researcher focused on the possibilities raised by energy transition, and a Brazilian scientist spelled out the advances in second-generation ethanol production in Brazil

Professor Andre Faaij, from the University of Groningen (The Netherlands), stated, in an event held on Friday, January 17, at the FAPESP Shell Research Centre for Gas Innovation (RCGI), in São Paulo, that the recent “green deal”, worked out by the European Union (EU) and endorsed a few days ago by the European Parliament, whose goal is to transform Europe into the planet’s first neutral greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continent. He believes that the region will likely mobilize one trillion Euros to finance the transition, which presents opportunities for many economic sectors. The event was organized by the Brazil Energy Transition Group (BET), coordinated by the young researcher, Drielli Peyerl.

“It is no longer mere talk, or debate. It is investment. The latest estimates in Europe are that we will mobilize one trillion Euros in carrying out these plans over the coming years. This is a big enterprise and it is becoming increasingly popular for many players – obviously, I mean the energy sector, but it also includes industry, transportation, and the automobile industry…. Everything will be turned upside down. Understanding how energy transition works, and how it can be managed, as well as done at a cost within a payable reach, sustainably and acceptably, is highly important,” Faaij said, who is also actively involved in the TNO, which is an independent research institute with offices in nine countries.

On Wednesday, January 15, of this year, the European Parliament took a position regarding the EU’s next climate law, asking that it contain more ambitious targets for reducing GHG emissions for 2030:  55% in 2030, compared to 1990, instead of “at least 50% – 55%”, as proposed by the Commission.

At nearly the same time, a document from the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland (January 21-24), admitted, for the first time, that the biggest global economic risks are climate-related. In an open letter, the founder and executive director of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, recommends that all the companies participating in the encounter commit to setting targets for zeroing their net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or even sooner.

Transition and costs – In his presentation, “Towards zero GHG emission economies: how can the necessary energy system transition be realized over time?”, Professor Faaij showed several models by the IPCC, as well as the carbon costs avoided, which the Panel has been estimating over time, and he argues that these costs are high, because the models used by the group of scientists have low granularity, that is: a low level of detailing. “They are macro models, with a limited detail input, which is understandable, because they are global models. The IPCC calculates that the cost would be from USD 135 to USD 5,500 per ton of carbon avoided in 2030.”

According to him, energy transition means many things in different parts of the world. “In Sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia, for example, very few GHG emissions are connected with energy production. In those regions, the emissions come from the use of the soil, that is: subsistence agriculture by which they are surviving. But they will want to change their standard of living and achieve the standard of India, China, the United States…. That is a powerful driving influence that increases the demand for energy. Therefore, transition in those countries – here, we are talking about several billion people within a context of great population growth – and how their economies will be transformed over the coming decades are critical elements.”

For these reasons, in Faaij’s opinion, there’s no single plan for energy transition. “It must be made to order for each place.” The scientist called attention to the low level of popularity of such solutions as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and the use of biomass in Europe, and he also stressed the potential of biomass for the worldwide energy supply.

“We can triple the weight of biomass in the worldwide energy matrix, including biofuels, not to mention the chemicals that can be generated from biomass. There are opinion groups that are more radical and want to make the transition without CCS, and without intensifying the production of biomass. In a future context, with a high level of use of biomass and of such solutions as CCS, while also taking into account the use of BECCS, which generates negative emissions, that is, in a context of negative emissions, there would be a little room for the use of fossil fuels, and that case it would be natural gas, which causes the least GHG emissions of all of them.”

Ethanol – During the second part of the event, Professor Marcos Buckeridge, Director of the National Institute of Science and Technology – Bioethanol (INCT), spoke about ethanol, especially second-generation ethanol, regarding the challenges and opportunities Brazil has in this segment.

“In the market place, sugar competes with ethanol. First-generation ethanol is produced from sugarcane molasses. It is also possible to extract sugarcane polymers and use them in bio-refineries, which is quite interesting and important. Also, we can produce electricity by burning sugarcane bagasse. The biggest problem in this case is that the bagasse is not prepared to be burned, and it has a high oxygen content. Therefore, it is necessary to genetically design the sugarcane crop, in order to obtain products for specific objectives. This is what we are working on.”

Buckeridge explains that second-generation ethanol is produced from sugarcane bagasse, the leaves taken from the cane field, and the straw that remains on the ground. “In this case, we basically use the cell walls of these residues. But it is very difficult to break them down and obtain free sugars that will form 2G ethanol.”

He also explains that the process begins with a pretreatment phase, after which it is necessary to hydrolyze the material and, to that end, enzymes are needed. “There is only one company in the world that commercially produces these enzymes, located in Denmark. But we are working on this. We have already defined more than one hundred enzymes, and we discovered that there are some fungi that also perform this function. Now, we intend to use a commercial enzyme and, then, add others that act upon the cell walls of these residues that we plan to work with. We want to know if we will be able to enrich these commercial enzymatic cocktails by utilizing enzymes from sugarcane itself, which act within the domains of the cell wall,” he summarized.

Another way to facilitate this work, as he says, would be to modify the cell walls of these residues via molecular genetics, thus making cell walls more conducive to hydrolysis. “In this case, maybe we could perform a biological pretreatment phase, instead of a chemical or physical one, which would be better, in terms of energy costs.”

The group from INCT – Bioethanol created a software to analyze the gene sequences of the cane cell wall, and by 2019 it had already catalogued 1,600 genes. “The software can be used by researchers worldwide, as well as our database. It is harder to sequence the sugarcane genome that it is the human genome,” Buckeridge stated.

More CO2, more ethanol – The scientist reported on the performance of an experiment with sugarcane, where cameras are installed in the ceiling, and future conditions are simulated: an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, higher temperature, more water, less water…. “We already know some of the genes that will be “turned on” or “turned off”, according to the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. We know that when sugarcane is placed in an environment that is rich in CO2, it produces about 30% more sugars, and would produce more ethanol in the future – providing that the temperature and the water supply are normal. This depends on the modelling. We already know that the genes related to this phenomenon are connected to photosynthesis.”

Finally, he stated that other materials can be used to obtain 2G ethanol, such as sorghum and duckweed. “Sorghum is very similar to sugarcane in several of its aspects. The genome is also very similar, as well as its physiological conduct. Duckweed is easier to hydrolyze than sugarcane, and it is also a very interesting type of biomass, because it can be used to clean water and it easily adapts to growing anywhere in the world. Soy residues can also be used.”

Around 20 people were present at the event, including the Scientific Director of the RCGI, Julio Meneghini, and Professor Suani Coelho, who is an expert in biogas and coordinates one of the Centre’s projects. “This is the first activity held by the BET, and I would like to thank the participants of the group that helped organize the event and those who were in attendance,” BET Coordinator, Drielli Peyerl said in closing.