From field to fuel: a day in the life of biofuels production in Brazil

Last edited: 17 September 2018

BP Magazine takes a look behind the scenes at one of BP's low carbon businesses to see how sugarcane is transformed into biopower and ethanol – a liquid fuel powering vehicles and reducing greenhouse gas emissions along the way

Biofuels are seen as one of the best large-scale solutions to decarbonize the transport sector and demand for them is set to continue to grow for decades. In Brazil, where demand for the alternative energy source is high, BP produced 776 million litres of ethanol equivalent from sugarcane last year – enough biofuels to cut emissions equalling the removal of 260,000 European cars from the road annually. Not only that, each BP site is biopowered – read on to find out how.

Top of the crops

Ethanol production begins in the field with fertilization, irrigation and pest and disease control; all key to the crop’s success. Brazilian sugarcane is one of the most land-efficient feedstocks for producing biofuels. Less than 2% of the land used for crops and pasture in Brazil goes towards sugarcane cultivation for ethanol.

Driving force

When BP first started to produce biofuels in Brazil in 2008, there were scarcely any women in the workforce. Since then, a programme to encourage, support and inspire women to play their part has had a real impact, with more than 750 now employed in administrative, agricultural, industrial, or maintenance roles.

Precision harvesting

When the sugarcane is ripe, harvesting begins. Modern machinery, with autopilot and on-board computers, make their way through the fields, gathering the crop in their trailers, before its eventual transfer to the processing manufacturing sites.

Miller time

The industrial process begins when the cane stalks reach one of three BP manufacturing sites, where 5,000 people are employed overseeing processing capability of 10 million tons of sugarcane per year. Pictured is the BP Ituiutaba Mill.

Off the grid – biopower

The cane juice is extracted from the fibres and the remaining ‘bagasse’ is burned in a boiler, pictured above. The resultant energy is used to power the manufacturing sites, making BP’s plants self-sufficient in electricity. The surplus power, about 70%, is sold to the Brazilian national grid.

The next step

The extracted juice is fermented and transformed into anhydrous ethanol (the type added to gasoline) and hydrous ethanol (the type that can be found at petrol stations). 

The picture shows employees on the staircase to access the fermentation area at the Ituiutaba plant. The manufacturing site also produces very high polarization sugar (a technical specification for raw sugar) and white sugar.

Biofuels fast facts

  • By 2040, 24% of all liquid fuel consumed in Brazil is expected to come from biofuels, up from 15% in 2016. In the US, the shares are 7% and 5%, respectively. (Country insights - Energy Outlook 2018.)
  • Brazil is the Saudi Arabia of biofuels. Brazilian current commercial reserves are estimated at ~5.1 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

     

     

     

The sweet stuff

Liquid ethanol is the main product but the sugar shown here in the storage area, is sold to the food industry. BP’s ethanol is sold to the domestic market, where it is either mixed with gasoline or used in its pure form to power vehicles, producing 70% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels.

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