All You Want to Know.. On Sugar Bioethanol!

On Monday, May 20th– we spent the majority of our morning at SURCAL- a sugar bioethanol producer. I learned a lot while there, so I am going to take some time to inform you on all that I learned through the Directors that took the time to speak with us. J

Brazil is the largest producer of sugar in the world as well as the largest producer of sugar bioethanol.  At one point in the recent past, 85% of cars produced in the world ran solely on bioethanol, now less than 1% of cars produced run solely on ethanol. Sugar and ethanol come from the same crop. A flex motor can run on ethanol or gasoline. This was developed in the 90’s. Now 85% of all cars produced have this motor. When ethanol is 70 % lower than the price of gas, that it’s one it becomes advantageous to produce ethanol. The production of ethanol is also more advantageous than the production of gasoline.

Sugarcane was introduced to Brazil in the 1500’s. Brazil has been working with sugar cane for more than 500 years. Cuba used to produce more sugarcane, but not anymore. 550 million tons of sugarcane are produced a year. Roughly a 50/50 split between ethanol and sugar. This increase is due to more land, new technology and new cultivars. Burning of land in sugarcane harvesting is now prohibited.  1 acre burned of sugar cane is the equivalent of 30 barrels of petroleum going into the atmosphere.

Now there is new areas of Brazil that are being used to grow crops for sugar. This is to Brazil as the west is to the United States. The sugarcane is renewed on cycles. In a field there are typically 6-7 crops. They are on rotation. Planting of the sugarcane is the biggest production cost.

Cycle: sugarcane= sugar = energy

Sugarcane= ethanol = energy

Energy produced amounts to about 5-6% of Brazil’s total energy production in a year. In the future, they would like 10-11% of total energy production to come from sugarcane. There is now research being done on the economic gain from producing more alcohol from the byproduct or producing energy with the byproduct. This doesn’t take into account the energy demand of Brazil’s residents.

One take away: decisions are always being made based on the economic benefit; what action is the most cost effective.

Production plants: must be flat; logistics= close to rivers and highways; the plants must be able to produce 1.5 million tons or more a year.

Importance of sugarcane to the development of Brazil:

Way back when it created a lot of employment- 1000 people on a farm x 400 farms= a lot of people.

Biggest problems is not production, but the technology of transporting goods in a timely manner as well as logistics. In example, the US has given much attention to water transportation like canals and dams. This makes it very cheap. Rail has been hurt very bad… it was privatized and now rail is trying to make up for lost time. Water transport is cheapest and then rail is after that. Does Brazil need to be following in the footsteps of the US regarding the dam infrastructure for subsidized agricultural crops? I say: NO.

A few take aways from SURCAL:  I am completely floored and amazed that there are sustainable companies such as this that are continually looking to make better processes and try to reduce waste. I would not be surprised if within the next few years SURCAL becomes completely green in that they don’t need to rely on any outside sources for their production, and also have zero waste.  Before going to Brazil I was operating on this assumption that Brazil is one of the most sustainable countries in the planet—I still agree with this assumption, although they are doing other things- like wanting to invest in dam infrastructure that changes my mind.


Local–> Global Connections… SEL Campinas

Day 4

Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories is a global company. If you would have asked me that in Pullman, I probably would have responded “no”. I say this because although I have lived in Pullman for over six years, I have never actually visited the company or taken the time to get to know what they do. We as a group had the opportunity to visit with the SEL brand office in Campinas. We all learned a lot, but I walked away with a lot of things to think about that apply directly to my thesis research and interests in landscape architecture. (Let me explain) 🙂

The SEL mission is to make power safer, more reliable and more economical…. I had no idea that SEL engineers products to make this happen, and that they were marketing these strategies to developing countries. SEL Campinas’ largest customer tends to be petrochemicals… this year is somewhat leaning towards generator customers. (More specifically the relays for the generators.) A lot of this need, or my understanding of it, comes out of the blackouts that have been occurring here for decades.

In example, there were 5 blackouts in Brazil last year. Our partners explained that this directly relates to their growth which is about 15% or more per year, and the northern part of the country definitely doesn’t have good electrical systems in place. We were told that 70% of Brazil’s energy comes from hydropower because it is the cheapest source of energy. I mean, it makes sense because they get so much rain every year and have so many rivers.

Most power in Campinas comes from itaipu dam. Last year a huge storm hit itaipu dam and thunder hit the transmission lines. This is bad because the way Brazil has their energy system set up, if thunder hits the transmission lines then a blackout occurs in the whole system because there is no way to compartmentalize the part that is down.

SEL explained its hard to convince the power companies or government to use a new technology so that there is a better and unified system across the country so that there are less blackouts. We were told that a lot of it has to do with the fact that here the product needs to be shown as a part of a solution for the product to sell; in US the product is sold by looking specifically at the product details.

I greatly appreciate that the staff at SEL Campinas took the time to explain to us that even the marketing you have to do in Brazil varies greatly then how you would market product in the US.

All of the information I gathered has armed me with a lot of questions and thoughts. First, it makes me really happy that a worldly company that is from my home is seriously considering the future of power production and ways to make it better—especially in other countries. Secondly, I am considering the fact that here in Brazil, what people truly care about and value is significantly different then back home. I think this can be seen in how they care for their environment. (I am seriously looking at the rivers with this point.) Lastly, I can’t help but make the connection that when it comes to our environment, there is much work to be done across scales.

To explain, I am noticing all of this work that is being done to be more mindful of the environment and how we harness it for energy, however, are those that are producing this energy considering the implications this production is having on scales larger than their own needs? Brazil, the US and other countries are producing energy to meet the demand for their own country’s growth, but what about the connections between these countries and the ecological regions that naturally connect without our forethought?

I have to really hand it over to SEL. They are modeling to me something that is extremely important: energy production across scales. I only hope that when I get back to Pullman I can go meet with them and truly explore how a landscape architect can assist in their company because I am seeing a very strong connection between the work and research I am interested in doing, and the work the are already doing across borders and regions of the world.


This picture is part of a timeline of events for SEL. In 2007 thry became more sustainable by switching from paper to digital versions of materials.