Sunday, August 2, 2009

visit to a brazilian sugar cane mill

I'm currently in Sao Paulo, Brazil attending the 1st Brazil-US Biofuels Short Course organized by Fulbright Brazil. This post was originally posted at

Today we visited the Iracema Sugar Cane Mill, which is a few hours northwest of Sao Paulo. The mill takes sugar cane stalks from nearby plantations and refines it into sugar and ethanol. All of the sugar mills in Brazil make sugar and choose whether or not to make ethanol based on market prices. I have never been to a sugar mill or ethanol refinery today.

While sugar and ethanol are the main products from the mill, leftover biomass, or bagasse, is burned to create process steam and electricity that powers the plant. All ethanol plants are required to be self-sustaining or else they're products are hit with a penalty. The flue gas from combusting the bagasse is scrubbed with water vapor to remove (most) particulate matter.
bagasse and stack

The exhaust is mostly water vapor.

They produce a lot of bagasse.
mountain of bagasse

The scrubber system.

While most of the sugar cane is harvested mechanically a fair amount is still burned and delivered to the mill. Today's cane was milled. Notice the burn marks and full stalks. Mechanically harvested cane is shorter because it is chopped up into smaller pieces by the harvester in the field.

The cane stalks are milled by giant machines.

Juices from the cane goes off for processing while the bagasse is separated out.

The sugary juices are hit with steam and then left to turn into molasses. The solid sugar crystals are then removed from the molasses by a centrifuge. The remaining sugary liquid is sent off to be fermented and distilled into ethanol.

The sugar crystals are stored in a giant mountain of sugar bags.
mountain of sugar

We didn't get to walk through the refinery, but we did get to travel out into the fields and see the harvesting.

What a sight it must have been to see a bus full of Americans get out and take pictures of cane harvesting then get back in and leave.

The sugar cane is several meters tall!
tall cane

We watched them dump cut cane into trucks.

We made sure not to get run over by the big machines.
crazy machine

The trip to the sugar cane mill was very educational. Before going I had a hard time visualizing the scale of biofuels production, but I have a better understanding about it now. Even though I'm not a huge fan of ethanol, you have to hand it to the Brazilians for having a large-scale system that is very efficient.

learning about brazilian sugar cane

I'm currently in Sao Paulo, Brazil attending the 1st Brazil-US Biofuels Short Course organized by Fulbright Brazil. This post was originally posted at

I've learned a great deal about the Brazilian sugarcane ethanol industry in the past few days and I have some thoughts... Brazil is intent on expanding their ethanol production, essentially doubling production by 2020 - producing 1000 million metric tons of cane. This amount will translate to approximately 54 billion liters of ethanol per year (based on 26.6 Blpy produced currently).

I wonder where all of this extra ethanol is going to go? Some of the presenters in attendance suggested that up to 60% of ethanol might go to external markets. This estimate is subject to change because no one really knows what will happen 10 years from now, but it opens up interesting scenarios. How will Brazilian ethanol fit into the US fuel mix? How will carbon regulation affect the import of Brazilian ethanol into the US? What about other world markets (Europe, Asia)?

What's certain is that Brazil is going full steam ahead with increasing sugarcane production. This most likely means detrimental impacts on the land. The Amazon won't be directly affected, but any planting on the cerrado (savanna in the central region of Brazil) will have negative impacts on the land because of water usage or displacing grazing land or other crops.

With that said, I have developed an understanding of Brazil's fascination with sugarcane biofuels. As in the US, Brazil is using a domestic resource that they have experience with. In the US we have a lot of knowledge with growing corn and grain crops, and the same holds for Brazil and sugarcane. They're trying to make the most out or a domestic resource and we need to understand and learn from their mistakes and successes.