Physics

Biofuels

Improved Feedstock
Fabio Henrique Pereira – Monsanto

Plant stalks, grain and seed provide the building blocks of sugars, starches and oils from which biofuels are made. Plants which provide large amounts of these basic feedstocks are required to produce biofuels that are economically and environmentally sustainable. The best feedstocks will produce a fuel that is economically competitive with petroleum-derived fuels, builds rural economies and reduce carbon emissions. Ethanol, the most abundantly produced biofuel, is made from sugarcane in Brazil and corn and other grains in the United States. In total over 90 billion liters of ethanol made world wide in 2013.

Sugarcane is the preferred biofuel feedstock in Brazil’s tropical environments. The plant is high yielding, with an average yield of 74 tonnes/ha produced last season in the Center South. Based on market conditions sugarcane mills can direct production of sugarcane juice towards either ethanol or sugar production. In the 2012/2013 season the split was almost exactly 50:50 to make 21 million liters of ethanol and 34 million tonnes of sugar. Bagasse, the biomass left over after the stalks have been juiced, is typically burnt for power supplying about 3% of Brazil’s electricity.

Multiplication, the production of planting material for a new crop is one of the major challenges in sugarcane production. Sugarcane is a hybrid derived from the crossing of two different species. This provides the high yields and stress tolerance associated with hybrids, but the hybrid does not produce desirable seedlings and must be vegetatively propagated. Commercial planting is far more expensive than with seeded crops. About 20 metric tonnes of seed cane are used to plant each hectare, which means that from one hectare as source it only 4 new hectares can be planted, a multiplication rate from 1:4. In contrast the multiplication factor for corn is around 1:250. This means that about 20% of a mills land is used for seed cane production.
New nurseries, using insect and disease free material, are essential both to maintain a healthy crop and also to introduce new sugarcane varieties. New varieties typically offer mills superior yield, harvest flexibility or disease tolerances, all of which can improve overall yield and profitability. Biofactories, large scale in vitro propagation facilities are often used to produce material for new nurseries. In biofactories amplification rates of >1:10,000 can be obtained and diseases can be eliminated.

The sugarcane yield in the field is essential to assure a sustainable production of biomass which brings more sucrose per hectare. So those technologies regarding seedcanes multiplication and agronomic traits are frontiers of science in this important crop for biofuel feedstock.

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