Advice – The Environment – Ethanol


Ethanol is largely seen as a environmentally friendly alternative to petrol. It is made from crops such as sugarcane in Brazil and soybean in the US, and it is significantly less polluting than petrol because it doesn’t produce sulphur dioxide or lead emissions. Any carbon dioxide it produces can be offset by growing more sugar plants. Cars in the UK can currently run on about 10 per cent of ethanol in petrol, but the corrosive effect of ethanol means increasing levels above this can damage the engine if the necessary changes have not been made.

Recent moves by Brazil to bring biofuels to the UK on a bigger scale have increased interest in ethanol as a possible replacement for petrol. Since signing agreements with Sweden and Japan, Brazil is now interested in developing partnerships with British companies. In Brazil ethanol is widely available and it makes up around 40 per cent of fuel consumption and powers over 50 per cent of vehicles. Having spent the last 30 years refining the production of ethanol from sugarcane, Brazil has now become the largest producer and exporter of ethanol in the world.

The technology for creating ethanol has been around since the 1920s, but production took off in Brazil in the 1980s when the government looked around for alternative sources in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis and rising oil prices. During the 1980s more than 75 per cent of motor vehicles and around 90 per cent of cars were run on ethanol. But a drop in oil prices and an end to government subsidies meant that ethanol was no longer a practical alternative to petrol. However, rising oil prices caused the popularity of ethanol to rise again two years ago, and now over 50 per cent of new cars in Brazil are flex-fuel cars that can be run on either pure petrol, pure ethanol or a mixture of the two.

Production of ethanol in Brazil is set to be increased over the next few years. In 2005 they produced 282,000 barrels of ethanol per day and the expectations are for production to rise to 442,000 barrels per day by 2010. Brazil currently exports 7,200 barrels per day to the US (who also produce their own ethanol from soybeans), and the question is whether or not the UK will become a new customer for Brazil’s growing industry in biofuels.