The Father of Brazilian Ethanol

When you talk to 83-year-old Brazilian physicist and bioenergy pioneer José Goldemberg, you may not immediately appreciate the significance of his years of experience and his profound influence on the course of renewable energy, but rather that he is a humble, kind, and remarkably calm man.

It was his breakthrough calculations in 1978 while a professor at the University of São Paulo that showed, from a pure energy balance question, that it was possible and profitable for Brazil to pursue turning sugarcane into liquid ethanol.  He and his colleagues also found that sugarcane ethanol produced less air pollution—significantly lower emissions of greenhouse gases—than did fossil fuels.

The energy balance finding helped bolster government efforts to further develop  Brazil’s biofuels industry, begun in response to the global oil crisis of the early 1970s. Today, Brazil is the second largest ethanol producer in the world behind the U.S., producing more than 7 billion gallons of sugarcane ethanol annually.

Yet it was the finding related to the environmental benefits of sugarcane ethanol that Goldemberg says ultimately set the course for his career.

In a recent phone conversation from his office in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and the regional center of its sugarcane industry, Goldemberg recalled that in the 1970s Brazil found itself under a military government, and the politicians at the time decided to create a large nuclear program and to construct nuclear factories to produce electricity. “To me it seemed contradictory since Brazil already had large quantities of hydroelectric power, why construct a huge park of nuclear factories? What if we didn’t expand the nuclear system? How could we generate power?” he said.

At the time, Goldemberg was serving as the director of the Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo, where he had received his Ph.D. in 1954. “I lived in Brazil, and I thought the ethanol program was the right path to follow. But people here were not producing ethanol with this in mind; they saw it, above all, as a good business product. They did not have the slightest interest in improving energy efficiency or reducing emissions,” noted Goldemberg. “I did some calculations which proved that ethanol was a renewable energy source, and that it did not emit the gases that are emitted when petroleum products are burned. This is what took me onto this path; a scientific curiosity to prove how to develop a type of energy use that would be more rational than was being used at the time.”

By 1979, a year after his ethanol research was published in the journal Science, he became the president of the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science.  In 1983, he moved into government and policymaking as the president of the Energy Company of the State of São Paulo. This powerful combination of academic leadership, government service, and, later, international policy development has continued throughout his career.

Among the dozens of distinguished positions he has held, Goldemberg has served as the rector (president) of the University of São Paulo, as Brazil’s secretary of state of science and technology, and its minister of education. He has been the chairman of the board of the International Energy Initiative, and co-chair of the International Academy Panel that published the “Lighting the Way—Towards a Sustainable Energy Future” report in 2007.

International recognition for his contributions in bioenergy and environmental stewardship has come as well. In 2007, Time magazine named him one of its “Heroes of the Environment.” He is a co-winner of the Volvo Environmental Prize; was awarded the Blue Planet Prize from Japan, and most recently received the Trieste Science Prize bestowed by the Third World Academy of Sciences for the developing world.

“It gives me great satisfaction to know my work has been acknowledged,” said Goldemberg, “but no one chooses this profession for the potential awards. A scientist must be curious and have a desire to solve problems. It comes from a profound personal interest. Oftentimes we make a great effort and are not recognized. Other times, it may take a lot of time.”

In 1994, Tel Aviv University established the José Goldemberg Chair in Atmospheric Physics, recognizing his scientific influence and his family heritage. Goldemberg’s Jewish grandparents emigrated from Russia about 100 years ago and settled in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, where the cold climate, at least by Brazilian standards, was probably the only thing reminiscent of their homeland, he said.

There was a good education system in Rio Grande do Sul, resulting from the strong French influence, he said. “Unlike most schools in the country, in our region education was secular instead of religious. I studied in a public school. I remember one teacher really well who noticed that I was interested in how things worked. She really encouraged me.”  After graduating from high school, he moved to São Paulo where there were better universities. “I took a great physics course, and that was when I became a scientist,” he said.

“That’s where the secret is—in a good education.”

Goldemberg, who has four grown children, said that among the many honors he has received, the best prize is his four grandchildren. They are reason enough for this long-time champion of sustainable energy to continue to look forward.

After factoring in all the energy needed to grow, harvest, and distill sugarcane, calculations by Goldemberg and his colleagues showed that every unit of fossil fuel energy used to produce ethanol from sugarcane ultimately yielded 10 times the energy originally expended, the balance originating in energy captured from solar radiation.

 

THREE QUESTIONS FOR JOSÉ GOLDEMBERG

Q: What do you see as the important policy and social issues facing Brazil and other countries if biofuels are to become a viable challenge to petroleum?
A: Biofuels will not replace petroleum entirely in any feasible future. It is important not to have this illusion. But biofuels can substitute for up to a third of petroleum products by 2030. That would require probably a ten-fold expansion of present production, not an easy task. Globally, we use only 10 million hectares to grow biofuels—this comes down to Brazil and the U.S. The real roadblock will be when we have 100 million hectares worldwide producing biofuels and this causes social problems because it could compete with land for food production. In my view these problems can be solved by increased productivity and technological breakthroughs. Use of wood, agricultural residues, and urban waste, coupled with widespread adoption of second-generation biofuel technology, would be essential for this to happen.

Q: You introduced legislation in São Paulo to reduce greenhouse emissions 20 percent by 2020. Why is this so important?
A: São Paulo has the largest concentration of industry in Brazil and the new legislation is forcing the industrial park to modernize. At the heart of it, a low-carbon-emission economy, which is what we are trying to achieve, is an economy oriented towards modernization.

Q: What technical advances are vital for the future development of bioenergy?
A: In terms of Brazil, the big step is the development of “super” sugarcane. The current agricultural product is efficient, but its efficiency could be increased through genetic modification. Instead of a sugarcane with 15 percent sugar, which is the case now, we could create a sugarcane with more sugar. We could also come up with a cane plant that is taller, so instead of being 3 meters tall it could be 5 meters.

The biggest roadblock for cellulosic biofuels is finding technology to break up the cellulose. Adequate genetic manipulation of yeasts is one of the routes to do it. There is a lot of research going on in this area in the EU and in the U.S. and these problems should be resolved by 2015. Also, the gasification of biomass followed by the Fischer-Tropsch process (chemical reaction to convert gas to liquid fuels) should be pursued more actively.

 

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