The Corpus Callosum

The Washington Post today has an article on href="">Brazil’s
milestone achievement: this year, their oil exports will
equal or exceed their imports.  This is significant for a few
reasons.  For one, it shows that it can be done, at least in
one sizable country.  Although the fact that they were able to
do it does not prove that we could do it too, it does indicate that we
could be doing a lot better than we are.  It also shows that a
country does not have to be an academic or technological powerhouse to
do it.

In saying that, I do not mean to disparage the impressiveness of their
technological accomplishment.  Over the course of the project,
they cut the cost of ethanol production by two-thirds, from 60 cents
per liter, to 20.  They no longer rely on agricultural
subsidies.  That is impressive.  They did it by
establishing a technological institute that funds about 300 scientists.
 So it is big, but such institutions are commonplace in the

Given that many of the challenges are political, not technological, one
may wonder how Brazil did it.  They did it with a method that
is not yet commonplace in the USA, although it is a method that is
gaining in popularity here.  They made many of the political
changes under the control of a military dictatorship.  

Brazil’s military dictatorship launched the national
ethanol program in 1975, when about 90 percent of its fuel consumption
depended on foreign oil. The government offered subsidies to sugar cane
growers and forced service stations in every town of at least 1,500
people to install ethanol pumps. By the early 1980s, almost all new
cars sold in Brazil ran on 100 percent ethanol.

One other reason that the Brazil accomplishment is important, is that
it casts doubt on the arguments of ethanol skeptics.  

One of the major arguments used against ethanol is that it would href="">not
be possible for us to grow enough ethanol to replace the oil
that is used for transportation.  That happens to be true, but
it also happens to be irrelevant.  In point of fact, it is not
desirable to replace one monolithic energy source with another.
 What is desirable, it to find many alternative energy
sources, each one of which fills a particular role, or contributes to
the aggregate energy need.

Of course, having just one source fits in with the agenda of heavy
industry, because it is much easier to control and thus to manipulate
prices, if there is only one primary energy source.  But
having a widely diversified energy portfolio is advantageous for the
country as a whole.

Another href="">argument
against the use of ethanol for fuel is that some persons have
produced calculations
that indicate that the amount of energy required to produce ethanol is
as great as the amount of energy the ethanol provides. If that
is true, however, it would be difficult to explain how Brazil managed
to use ethanol to eliminate dependence on foreign oil.
 Granted, one would need to have more information about the
specifics of the energy economy in Brazil in order to use this as proof
of a net energy gain, but it is strongly suggestive.


  1. #1 FhnuZoag
    August 20, 2006

    this year, their oil exports will equal or exceed their imports.

    Yes, but they will still be importing and exporting.

    The thing is, there are many different types of crude oil, and still, economies in general need all of these types. There is no magic wand that make self-sufficiency possible, at least in the short term.

  2. #2 Thomas Palm
    August 20, 2006

    Ethanol from sugar cane is a net energy gain. If you make it from corn or other surplus in USA or Europe it tends to run about even. However, not all areas can grow sugar cane so the supply is limited and Brazil is cutting down rain forests at a rapid rate to increase supply not only for themselves but for export to Europe. Biofuels will not solve the worlds tranport problems unless we also reduce consumption a lot.

  3. #3 Maywa
    August 20, 2006

    While it is true that the U.S. will not be able to grow enough corn to satisfy its energy needs through corn-based ethanol, it can probably grow enough switchgrass to do so. Cellulosic biomass—derived a non-food crop like switchgrass or from plant wastes—provides an excellent alternative to corn-ethanol. Not only is it less energy intensive to produce, but it also sidesteps the food vs. fuel dilemma. Moreover, one of the by-products of cellulose breakdown, lignin, is a highly combustible material that can be used to fuel the process, thereby creating a closed energy loop. Energy calculations commissioned done by the Argonne National Laboratories found that over its entire life cycle, corn-based ethanol saves about 20-30% CO2 (compared with gasoline), while cellulosic ethanol saves about 80%. Another study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense council had similar findings.
    In any case, Corpus is right, however, about the need to diversify when it comes to energy sources. Not even cellulosic ethanol will be able to fill our voracious energy needs if trends continue as they are today. A giant boost in fuel-efficiencies coupled with smart-growth policies are just two ways of getting transporation fuel needs under control. Only then will ethanol—cellulosic, corn or a combination of both—-stand any sort of chance in competing with almighty oil

  4. #4 Maywa
    August 20, 2006

    RE: As I said above, most scientific studies have concluded that corn-ethanol does, in fact, save energy. The reason Patzek and Pimentel (the “some persons” cited by Corpus) found otherwise was that their analysis included many upstream inputs, such as energy for labor and farm equipment not normally tallied when the fuel is gasoline.

  5. #5 Greco
    August 20, 2006

    …Brazil is cutting down rain forests at a rapid rate to increase supply not only for themselves but for export to Europe.

    That sentence is only correct in the past tense. The Atlantic forest was cut down for centuries for sugar cane production, especially in the Northeast, but there’s almost nothing of it left. Sugar cane production now moves into the cerrado, which isn’t rainforest – and for some reason is completely ignored by foreigners, even though it’s in worse condition than the Amazon. In the latter, the impact of sugar cane, if it exists (I would have to look it up), is minuscule, especially compared to soybean.

    It also shows that a country does not have to be an academic or technological powerhouse to do it.

    What exactly qualifies as an “academic powerhouse”? Does being the 17th most cited country in the world, mostly by foreign scientists, count in some way?

  6. #6 Andrew Dodds
    August 21, 2006

    One minor thing that seeems to be overlooked..

    Brazil oil production 1975: 177,000 barrels per day.

    Brazil oil production 2005: 1,634,000 barrels per day.

    Consumption of petroleum has gone from arouns 1 million barrels per day to around 2 million in 2005. Adding Natural gas liquids and processing gain to the above figure for crude production gives around 2 million barrels.

    That compares with Ethanol production of around 100 million barrels per year, or ca. 300,000 barrels per day.

    i.e. Around 15% of liquid fuel production in Brazil is ethanol. The 40% of gasoline figure is fairly deceptive, since it effectively excludes Kerosene jet fuel, Diesel truck fuel, industrial petroleum usage and electric generator usage.

    The real reason for Brazil being a net petroleum exporter is the early 1990s discovery of the deepwater Campos oil fields, which have been brought on line procressively starting in the late 1990s. These should peak out around 2008-2012, after which oil production will decline, and unless ethanol production goes through the roof, Brazil will again be an oil importer.

    The only biofuels scheme I’ve seen that might make a difference in first world countries if the desert-algal-pond type systems, which combine productivity with use of ‘waste’ (i.e. non-agricultural) land and sea water. Using crop land for fuels, or destroying even more ecosystems for monoculture, as is going on in Borneo, Indonesia and Brazil, isn’t going to wean the world off of oil, but it will be an environmental disaster.