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Technology & Innovation

The Goal: Cellulosic Ethanol From Brazil

A company believes it’s got the right mix of technologies to open and operate South America’s first-ever commercial-scale biorefinery producing ethanol from sugarcane waste.

What’s the Latest Development?

Brazilian startup GraalBio says that by December of this year it will begin operating South America’s first, and one of the world’s only, commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol refineries. Located in the town of São Miguel dos ­Campos, the $150 million plant is expected to produce 82 million liters of biofuel yearly using waste from the miles of sugarcane fields surrounding it. That figure is 10 times that of current facilities, which are operating at demonstration scale. GraalBio founder Bernardo Gradin says the plant will succeed by integrating the processing steps using state-of-the art technologies developed in Italy, Denmark, and elsewhere. The company is also looking to create a better form of sugarcane which would produce over three times more biomass.

What’s the Big Idea?

Creating ethanol from crop waste at a commercially profitable scale is a dream shared by companies and governments worldwide. So far, most attempts have resulted in failure, which is one reason why the energy industry has its eye on the GraalBio project. Also, the Brazilian government is highly interested in advanced biofuels, and has tripled its development budget to $1.5 billion, sending some of that money to GraalBio. One specialist says the technology has gotten cheaper, increasing the likelihood of success, but given past failures, he says, “I take the wait-and-see approach.”

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