We have long been aware of the enormous potential of biomasses as a source of energy. Until now, however, extensive industrial exploitation has been both expensive and controversial.
So-called ‘first-generation technologies’ are generally based on using the sugars of edible plants for biofuels, raising concerns of a worsening global food shortage. This kind of production also consumes considerable amounts of energy and causes emissions, while its by-product, plant waste, is difficult to use.
The search for replacement technologies has been fervent. One of the most important − if not the most important − trendsetters within the sector is Brazil, where production of bioethanol from sugar cane began as early as the 1970s.
VTT established a research centre of its own in São Paulo in 2011 to take advantage of Brazilian know-how. A joint three-year venture was initiated with Odebrecht Agroindustrial, part of the Odebrecht Holding, one of the largest industrial conglomerates in the southern hemisphere, in the summer of 2013.
Here VTT is developing second-generation technologies for the company for cellulose-based bioethanol production.
– Bioethanol is our main project in Brazil during the first phase. The goal is besides this project to help us attract additional research projects within the country’s sizeable energy sector, says Matti Siika-aho, Principal Scientist from VTT.
From cane sugar to cellulose
Brazil grows more sugar cane than any other country in the world.
First-generation ethanol production refines the sugar and sucrose from sugar cane into biofuel. The sugar extraction process leaves behind large amounts of bagasse, fibrous residue with high cellulose content. Although this can be burned in the refining plant furnaces to produce electricity, the efficiency ratio currently attainable is not always optimal.
Second-generation fuel technologies shift the focus to refining the plant cellulose. Because cellulose is hard to break down, the process is a complex one that continues to demand several stages and the consumption of large amounts of energy and chemicals.
Odebrecht − one of the top names in bioethanol production − is due under its three-year project to build a demonstration plant refining cellulosic ethanol.
The company selected VTT as one of its partners on the strength of its experience in using biomass for fuel production.
– VTT brings valuable research competence to the project. So far, no single solution has proved better than any other, so various technologies will probably live side by side for some time, says Frederico Ramazzini Braga, who manages innovation activities at Odebrecht Agroindustrial.
The stages in second-generation biomass refining include pretreatment and hydrolysis. Braga says that for its technology choice Odebrecht is leaning towards a biochemical treatment process. The other alternative would have been thermochemical treatment.
– VTT’s strong competencies in hydrolysis and C5 fermentation show clearly in the joint venture, he points out.
Doubling production per hectare
Nilson Boeta, CEO of VTT’s research centre in Brazil, believes the Odebrecht cellulose ethanol project will have a major impact on the country’s bioenergy sector.
The project receives funding among others from the PAISS programme, intended to accelerate reform of the Brazilian sugar industry.
– Odebrecht has grown rapidly and is likely to become the largest ethanol producer in the country before long. The aim is to use the technologies currently under development to achieve a significant increase in production within the sector, says Boeta.
Boeta estimates there are 150–200 companies in Brazil producing bioethanol in some 400 production plants. Odebrecht alone is expected to produce 22.5 million tonnes of sugar cane this season.
– If the volume of bagasse that we currently burn could be refined cost-efficiently into bioethanol, the production per hectare of biofuel, as the end product, would double, says Boeta.
VTT’s Siika-aho is also excited about the project.
− Although the demonstration plant planned by Odebrecht is globally not the first of its kind, commercial production of cellulosic ethanol is nevertheless still in its infancy.
– The company is a forerunner within its field, which makes it a preferred partner for us. Odebrecht’s first-generation bioethanol plants are very advanced, Siika-aho says.
Biofuels and cleantech
Another Finnish partner, Valmet, is involved in the Odebrecht project, and will be delivering the pretreatment equipment to the demonstration plant.
Valmet is also interested in the Brazilian bioenergy market, and presently operates primarily within the cellulose industry. The company currently employs more than 400 people in Brazil.
– Bioenergy is a very important future area of operation, and we are examining the opportunities it offers. Valmet is fully prepared for the rise from supplier of pilot technologies and demonstration plants to full commercial-scale supplier, declares Marita Niemelä, Vice President, Strategy at Valmet Pulp and Energy.
All things considered, Brazil is a land of opportunity for Finnish companies. One of the tasks of VTT’s local research centre is to act as a bridge between Finnish enterprises and local business life.
– We have been visited by ministerial-level delegations and representatives of various companies. In addition to providing research services, the idea is for companies to have at their disposal a body that understands the Brazilian business environment and regulations, and supports their market entry, says Nilson Boeta.
– In Brazil, more and more actors are focusing on cleantech and sustainable solutions. VTT can play its part in helping Finnish companies to gain a foothold in the country, he adds.
The Suzano Papel e Celulose plant, launched at the end of 2013, was Valmet's first turnkey cellulose plant delivery in South America. The plant is one of the biggest in the world.
Diversification of the energy sector
Energy production in Brazil is headed by hydroelectric power, followed by biomasses, of which bagasse holds by far the largest share.
Most Brazilian sugar cane farming is highly modernised and optimised, and customarily referred to as agroindustry. While next-generation technologies enhance energy production based on biomass, other energy options are also being explored.
– Pine trees and eucalyptus grow in Brazil, but are currently largely used by the wood processing industry. Apart from sugar cane, crops include soybean, wheat, corn, fruit, and various oil plants. Agricultural waste is well suited for biomass use, says Matti Siika-aho, listing the options.
Nilson Boeta, on the other hand, highlights sources of renewable energy more familiar to Finns:
– Wind power production is on the increase, particularly in Northern Brazil and in the southern tip of the country. Demand for solar energy is also on the rise.
Energy efficiency may provide one opportunity for Finnish companies. Brazil is also developing environmental awareness.
– An energy conservation culture barely exists at the moment, but there are definite signs, although Finns are far more advanced in this sense than the Brazilians, says Boeta.
Cars in Brazil use more alcohol than gasoline as fuel.
Integration of electricity and ethanol
Brazil launched the PAISS programme, backed by the local development bank BNDES and others, to target reform of the country’s enormous sugar energy industry. Its primary aim is to increase field production per hectare.
– Although there is local market demand for cellulosic ethanol, biofuel prices in Brazil are defined by political decisions. Major international actors are therefore particularly interested in the use of biomass as a renewable feedstock in their processes, says Siika-aho.
As it is, local bioethanol plants have already been integrated into the electricity production system. Discounting ethanol, for example, Odebrecht plants produce 3,100 gigawatt hours of electricity annually. According to Frederico Ramazzini Braga, this is enough to cover the energy consumption of 16 million Brazilian families for one month.
The plan is to integrate second-generation ethanol production into both first-generation production and electricity production.
Siika-aho points out that energy is only one of the options available for the use of biomasses.
– New technologies enable the refining of sugar cane biomass into various chemical industry products. As is the case with the companies operating in Brazil, VTT has also set its sights on the future.
Siika-aho believes that large feedstock and production volumes create major opportunities.
Cellulosic ethanol opens many doors
VTT Brasil Ltda began its operation almost three years ago in São Paulo. The research centre currently has 13 employees, with around half focusing on cellulosic ethanol cooperation with Odebrecht Agroindustrial.
Matti Siika-aho, Principal Scientist, and Nilson Boeta, CEO of VTT Brasil, both describe biofuels and bioenergy as VTT’s spearhead project in Brazil, but point to several other plans under development.
The biomass refining technologies developed for the energy sector can be extensively exploited in the future in different industrial sectors.
– VTT has a lot to offer, for example to the cellulose and paper industry. Our technologies can be used to develop cellulose into high added-value products. One example is a special fibre refined from the eucalyptus tree which has high absorbency, making it an ideal material for babies’ nappies. This R&D makes use of nanotechnology, for example, says Boeta.
– We are currently exploring cooperation opportunities with the forestry and chemical industries. The Brazilian gold mining sector also offers interesting prospects.
Siika-aho is satisfied that VTT Brasil has succeeded in recruiting doctoral-level experts, fluent in both Portuguese and English. That such people could be found was not self-evident.
– Our researchers need to prove their worth in the Odebrecht project. Apart from achieving a successful outcome in the project, we are also expected within three years to perfect the relevant methods and know-how to a level that allows their continued use in diversified research, says Siika-aho, giving his vision of the future.
Enzymes and fermentation at the core
VTT's principal focus in the Odebrecht project is on the study of enzymes used in second-generation bioethanol production processes, with further focus on the fermentation of sugars derived from sugar cane extraction residue.
– Bagasse contains plenty of wood sugar, xylose. As traditional yeasts are incapable of converting it to ethanol, VTT is developing new types of yeasts that can, says Matti Siika-aho.
– In addition to developing yeast strains, we are studying the most cost-efficient way of refining the feedstock into sugars. We are also examining how these technologies could be used more effectively in industrial-scale processes.
The question of enzyme production is financially significant.
– The logistical expenses will be enormous if Brazilian bioethanol producers have to buy their enzymes from abroad. This is reflected in the final product prices, Nilson Boeta points out.
– The biggest challenge lies in developing the technology to a level that allows all 400 bioethanol production plants to produce their own enzymes, he says, summing up the Brazilian standpoint on VTT’s R&D goals.