Brazil is also using sugarcane ethanol to generate bioelectricity

Brazil: State of innovation

As Dilma Russeff gets sworn in as the first ever female President of Brazil, E&T looks at the country’s growing reputation as an up-and-coming world superpower.

For a country whose first university was not established until the 20th century, Brazil is not doing badly in science and technology.

Why exactly it took the nation so long to kick-start its academic activities is a matter for the historians to debate. Some have suggested that this may have been a deliberate attempt by the Portuguese colonial empire to prevent the rise of an educated Brazilian class, which would have almost certainly harboured uncomfortable ambitions of independence.

If that was indeed the case, it is difficult to understand why, once Brazil did become an independent state in 1822, it still had to wait until 1909 to create its first academic institution, the Universidade Livre de Manaus.

By contrast, former Spanish colonies such as Mexico, Peru and Argentina all had well-established universities by the mid-1600s. This may partially explain why a country like Argentina has five Nobel laureates while Brazil has just one.

Technological achievements

What it does not explain, however, is why Brazil has managed to, among other things, develop the most efficient form of ethanol biofuel; create the world's third-largest aircraft manufacturing corporation; become an obligatory reference in the fields of hydroelectricity generation and deep-water oil and gas production; establish Latin America's most advanced space programme; and build and operate the first synchrotron particle accelerator in the Southern Hemisphere.

As impressive as each of these technological achievements are, they are nowhere near enough to match the level of innovation that will be expected of a country slated to become the world's fourth largest economy by as early as 2040.

In a ranking of global innovation compiled in 2007 by the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, Brazil was found to be in 42nd place out of 49 countries.

Data from the World Intellectual Property Organisation shows that, while China filed for 8,000 international patents in 2009, Brazil's output was a mere 480 patents.

In a way, this is understandable. Brazil is, by far, Latin America's largest and most populous nation. Its influence in the world stage steadily growing since a series of economic reforms in the 1990s helped bring financial stability, before President Lula went several steps further by reducing both inflation and foreign debt, tightening fiscal policy, helping improve domestic competitiveness and revamping the pension system.

As these very words are being typed, Brazil is displacing the UK as the seventh largest economy in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) at purchasing power parity.

Yet for all its economic and even diplomatic expansion, Brazil remains a developing nation with a highly unequal income distribution system and millions of people living in precarious conditions. Combatting poverty, making Brazil a more equal society – not winning Nobel prizes – has until now been the main priority.

What Brazil ultimately aspires to is to become a developed nation. And there are no big secrets as to what countries need to do to develop. From an industrialisation point of view, there comes a time in the development curve of any nation when, to continue adding value to the goods it produces, it needs to be able to design and build for itself – not just import – the technology and the machinery that is required to manufacture such goods.

That's the point when innovation becomes an inescapable imperative. Fortunately for Brazil, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it has what it takes to innovate technologically at the highest level.

The power of sugar

In the early 1970s, as the Arab oil crisis was triggering widespread shortages and higher prices of petrol, the Brazilian government came up with a plan to promote the local production of ethanol as a fuel replacement.

The crop, chosen to generate the biofuel, was sugarcane, of which Brazil was already the world's largest producer. The programme was so successful that, by 1980, one in four new cars sold in the country were running on pure ethanol, a figure that jumped to three in four new cars only six years later.

However, as a poor sugarcane harvest in 1990 proved, the project had a major inherent weakness. If all you could put in your tank to keep the engine firing was ethanol, any potential problems with the delivery of the greener stuff would effectively render your vehicle useless. As it turned out in 1990, there were plenty of problems with the delivery of ethanol, which prompted angry consumers to abandon their ethanol-powered cars en masse and return to their old and trusted petrol-powered motors.

But the problem was solved in 2003, when Volkswagen in Brazil designed and launched the country's first flexible fuel vehicle. The pioneering Golf 1.6 Total Flex allowed for the use of either pure ethanol, standard petrol (sold as a 23 per cent ethanol blend in Brazil), or any combination of both. This let drivers choose whichever fuel was more convenient at the time of refuelling.

It didn't take long for Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford, General Motors, Renault, Toyota and the rest of the carmakers operating in Brazil to launch their own 'flex' models, as they are known in the country.

While flexible fuel cars have existed for as long as cars as such (the first Ford T models could indeed run on either ethanol or petrol), it wasn't until Brazilian engineers came up with a key innovation that the technology was able to thrive.

Working for the Brazilian subsidiary of Bosch, the experts developed a system that took advantage of sensors already present in standard modern engines. Data gathered by these sensors is fed into software developed by the team, which automatically determines the exact mix of ethanol and petrol – a vital task for the operation of the engine that, until this invention, required the use of an expensive additional sensor system.

According to the Brazilian Association of Vehicle Manufacturers, 89 per cent of the 282,000 new cars and light commercial vehicles sold in the country in October 2010 featured a dual-fuel system.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Brazilian ethanol industry is the efficiency levels that have been achieved. Research carried out in 2008 by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has shown that, for each unit of fossil energy required to produce ethanol from sugarcane, at least 9.2 units of renewable energy can now be generated.

This is over four times higher than the efficiency ratio for sugar beet-derived ethanol produced in France, and six times more efficient than corn-derived ethanol from the US. In fact, were it not for the heavy subsidies that American producers receive, their ethanol industry would be unviable.

Separating food from fuel

To this day, Brazil is the first and only nation to have established a sustainable biofuels economy. It is also the world's top exporter of ethanol fuel. Of the nearly 30 billion litres of sugarcane ethanol that the country will have produced by the end of the 2010/11 season, 6.5 billion litres will have been exported.

The Brazilian ethanol industry, however, has not been able to escape concerns that its growth must be coming – or will come at some point – at the expense of food production. Agricultural engineers and biotechnologists have been working on the development of two separate products: second-generation ethanol and genetically modified sugarcane.

Unlike today's Brazilian bioethanol, which is extracted directly from sugar, second-generation technology will leave the edible part of the plant untouched, extracting the fuel instead from bagasse (the fibrous residue left after the cane is crushed to make sugar) and other by-products.

Two of the techniques that could make this possible are making researchers increasingly hopeful. The first one is hydrolysis, whereby bagasse cellulose and hemi-cellulose are chemically treated and converted into sugars, which can then be fermented and transformed into ethanol.

The second technique is gasification. It consists of thermally transforming biomass into gas, synthesising it and converting it into either ethanol or even synthetic fuel similar to petrol, diesel or jet fuel.

As for the genetic modification of sugarcane, backers argue that it would allow for the productivity of ethanol to be doubled while maintaining current cultivated areas. José Goldemberg, a renowned Brazilian physicist and former president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, says the technology has already been developed in laboratories. 'All we need is government authorisation to use the genetically modified seeds,' he says.

From passenger jets to microchips

Aviation is another technology sector where Brazilian engineering has excelled. Founded in 1969 as a state-owned company – and privatised 25 years later – Embraer has grown to become the third-largest aircraft manufacturer behind Boeing and Airbus.

Employing 17,000 people and boasting annual revenues in excess of $18bn, the group has built a global customer base for its expanding range of commercial, executive and military airplanes.

Frederico Fleury Curado, president and chief executive officer of Embraer, says an example of how the company uses innovation to its advantage is Ipanema. He's not referring to the famous Rio de Janeiro neighbourhood or its glorious beach but to the crop duster that goes by the same name.

Launched 40 years ago to meet demand from the Brazilian agricultural sector, the plane was upgraded in 2004 with a piece of engineering which – to this day – no other aircraft maker has matched: an ethanol engine. And so the Ipanema, the oldest model still under production by Embraer, is at the same time the world's only aircraft certified to fly with ethanol fuel.

That's all very nice. But if Brazil is really serious about competing with the world's most innovative nations it will need to make inroads into the electronics sector.

There are certain aspects of the electronics world where Brazil is rightfully envied. Frequent readers of E&T might remember a cover story published last year about the state-of-the-art electronic voting system that Brazilians have developed. It's impressive technology and it works really well, as the October presidential runoff showed by confirming that Dilma Rousseff had become Brazil's first female president only a few hours after polls had closed.

The problem is one of granularity. Arguably, the highest degree of engineering sophistication in the Brazilian electronic voting system (the product with the highest value-added in the overall value chain) is the microchip doing the computations. That component was neither designed nor built in Brazil.

Having said that, it won't be long before future generations of Brazilian electronic products and systems will be able to source those all-important semiconductors from the domestic market. Looking to kick-start its microelectronics industry, the Brazilian government set up in November 2008 what is still the country's (and Latin America's) first and only semiconductor company.

Ceitec has both a design centre (employing over 100 engineers) and a silicon manufacturing plant (or fab) equipped to slice wafers all the way down to the 55 nanometre scale.

Last September, the company announced that it was ready to launch production of Brazil's first home-grown microchip. The device is an RFID (radio frequency identification) integrated circuit to be used by cattle farmers to keep track of their livestock by attaching it to cows' ears. Another user will be the federal government, which hopes the digital tag will help it crack down on the problem of roaming herds destroying the Amazon rainforest.

Ceitec says it will also concentrate on wireless communications and digital multimedia chips. One of the next projects engineers are working on is the development of another RFID device, which local biotech company Hemobras will use to eliminate sorting errors in its blood and plasma bags.

With each new integrated circuit emerging from the Ceitec fab in Porto Alegre, invaluable intellectual property is being created. The ladder that Brazil will need to rescue itself from that 42nd position on the innovation ranking will be long and difficult to climb. But it's already being put in place.

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