Biofuel Organisms - Sugarcane

Sugarcane is a very heavily used feedstock for biofuel. Brazil is the global leader in producing ethanol fuel from sugarcane and has been doing so since the 1970s. Sugarcane is often touted as a beneficial biofuel because it returns roughly eight times more energy than is invested into it. Despite the fact that sugarcane produces roughly twice as much ethanol per acre than corn, only 5.6 million gallons of ethanol per produced form sugarcane in 2011 compared to nearly 14 million gallons from U.S. corn. This discrepancy is due in part to the heavy subsidies on corn and the relatively larger size of United States industry.

One the other hand, Brazil is the largest users of ethanol as a fuel with more than 35,000 ethanol fueling stations in the country. Ethanol makes up 50% of the fuel used in Brazil and only 10% of the fuel used in the United States. It costs less to produce as well, though U.S. tariffs keep the price higher than that of corn in the United States. Other countries, like Sweden, are actively working to reduce tariffs and increase imports of Brazilian ethanol.

Biofuel Qualities and Land Use

Sugarcane yields about 800 gallons of fuel per acre, making it twice as efficient as corn. To meet the fuel demands of the U.S. for a single year would require 681,000 square kilometers. Also helping its efficiency over corn is the fact that sugarcane yields sugar, which can be fermented directly. Corn produces mostly starch, which must be converted to sugar before it can be fermented to ethanol.

Controversy

Sugarcane has been touted by some as the answer to global biofuel needs. Unfortunately claims like “sugarcane is the most efficient biofuel feedstock in commercial use today” fail to take into account land use changes that severely damage the eco-friendly profile of sugarcane. Because the crop grows best in tropical regions, rain forest is being cleared to plant sugarcane plantations. This means massive carbon debts are incurred before any crop is ever harvested and used.

More important than the carbon debt, however, is the loss of biodiversity. Rainforests are the most diverse regions of the planet and are already threatened by encroaching civilization. Further pressure may lead to irreparable harm through loss of biodiversity.