Brazil's sugar cane mills race to keep up with ethanol boom

The bustling Moema sugar mill in Orindiuva, Brazil.
The bustling Moema sugar mill in Orindiuva, Brazil. Douglas Engle / MCT

ORINDIUVA, Brazil — Just a decade ago, the giant Moema ethanol and sugar mill in this corner of southeastern Brazil covered less than half of its current 173,000 acres. It produced mainly sugar.

That was before world petroleum prices skyrocketed and millions of Brazilians turned to cheaper sugar cane-based ethanol to fuel their vehicles. Now, fuels made from sugar cane have become Brazil's second most-used energy source, only behind fossil fuels.

That boom has transformed Moema into one of Brazil's biggest sugar-cane mills and turned much of Sao Paulo state, where Moema is located, into the world capital of sugar cane ethanol.

More than 5,000 workers now help Moema churn out about 880,000 tons of sugar and 185 million gallons of ethanol every year, working day and night, rain or shine. Nationwide, sugar-cane mills produced nearly 6 billion gallons of ethanol last year, with output projected to jump by 160 percent through 2016.

"Things have completely changed here since this all started," said Roberto Santos, who supervises mechanized sugar cane cutting at Moema. "We've become much more efficient and quicker, and we're producing more. We're a different mill now."

Some 320 mills all over this nation of 185 million people are locked in the same race to keep up with rising domestic ethanol demand. Another 150 mills are scheduled to come on line over the next decade, mostly in the country's southeast.

Exploding demand has pushed mills here to plant on more farmland, harvest the crop more quickly and grow better-quality cane. Such innovations have drawn a steady stream of international visitors eager to learn the country's biofuel secrets and attracted global investors hoping to take part in the ethanol rush.

The country now ranks a close second in ethanol production to the United States, where farmers make the biofuel from corn, a far more expensive, less efficient and less environmentally friendly method. Brazil is by far the world's biggest producer of sugar cane.

"Brazil's industry has really been cost effective because they've had time to develop their methods," said Amani Elobeid, a leading biofuels expert at Iowa State University. "They've built an industry that is good at what it does."

Brazilian officials said part of their secret is nonstop research into sugar cane and ethanol, which started more than three decades ago when Brazil's government first subsidized ethanol production to counter rising world petroleum prices.

The resulting know-how has been put to use at Moema, where planters work with some 60 strains of sugar cane designed for every imaginable variety of weather conditions and terrains. That's allowed the mill to plant cane in previously unsuitable soils and extract more sucrose, the key ingredient in both sugar and ethanol.

The results have been dramatic in the cane fields.

Producers plant different strains of sugar cane for ethanol and other strains for sugar production and can use up to six generations of the same plant before the sucrose level deteriorates.

"There are some soils around here where you can use 12 generations," Santos said. "Now, we're growing cane in places it's never been."

Moema also has changed what it does with its sugar cane, now using half of it for sugar and half of it for ethanol. The mill's towering factory runs two sets of production lines, one for each product, and can change the sugar-ethanol balance instantly.

The mill has even found uses for bagasse — a fibrous material that's left over after the juice is pressed out of sugar cane — by burning it to generate all the electricity the factory needs, as well as to power three surrounding towns.

"We're using nearly every part of the sugar cane now," said Renato Junqueira Santos Pereira, whose family co-owns the Moema mill. "Nothing is wasted here. Everything goes into the process."

While U.S. sugar producers say their growth has been limited by concerns about pollution caused by the refining process, Brazilian growers insist they've solved what's been a longtime sugar-industry headache: What to do with vinasse, a potentially toxic, molasses-like sugar byproduct that can pollute groundwater and nearby rivers.

The Brazilians mix vinasse and water in carefully calculated proportions, which when spread over the right kind of soil, act as fertilizer.

"I can't say what's good for Brazil is good for Louisiana, but we've found a solution to this problem," said Carlos Rossel, a researcher and chemical engineer at the State University of Campinas in Sao Paulo state. "We've taken our own unique Brazilian circumstances and found a way to make this all function."

Not everything about Brazil's sugar-cane mills, however, has changed with the boom. Much of the cane is still cut by workers stooping and hacking with machetes, although at Moema, such work is being replaced by machine harvesters.

Cutting cane by hand also requires first setting controlled fires in the fields to clear out razor-sharp leaves, snakes and other dangers, a practice that diminishes one of ethanol's main selling points — its reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions. Sao Paulo state requires growers to stop burning fields by 2014.

On top of that, the industry's best practices may not always work in far-flung regions where many new mills are being built. Such areas have different soil and weather conditions than what's found in the country's traditional ethanol belt. Land disputes, deforestation and slave labor are also more pervasive.

"As you move into new territory, closer to the Amazon, the soils are not as rich and are more easily degraded, and the enforcement of labor laws is much weaker," said Andrea Bolzon, Brazilian coordinator of the United Nations' anti-slavery project. "Problems the ethanol industry has so far controlled could grow."

Despite such fears, Brazil's ethanol leaders say they've built an unstoppable ethanol machine that could fuel the world if other countries, including the United States, lowered protective ethanol tariffs blocking the biofuel's entry.

Ethanol producers also say they haven't stopped improving their methods. Next on the horizon are new generations of biofuels made from castor oil plants and leaves, grass and other cellulosic material.

And while the Moema mill already appears to be working at full capacity, people here say they're ready for more.

"We won't be able to double our production overnight," Santos Pereira said. "But with the right planning and given the right conditions, growth is inevitable."

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