Sugarcane ethanol today is made from the sucrose found in sugarcane juice and molasses. This current process taps only one-third of the energy sugarcane can offer. The other two-thirds remains locked in leftover cane fiber (called bagasse) and straw. While some of this energy is converted to bioelectricity in Brazil, scientists have discovered new techniques to produce ethanol – known as cellulosic ethanol – from leftover plant material.
This complex process involves hydrolysis and gasification technologies to break down lignocellulose – the structural material found in plant matter – into sugar, in the case of sugarcane. While cellulosic ethanol can be manufactured from abundant and diverse raw materials, its production requires a greater amount of processing than traditional sugarcane ethanol and is therefore currently more expensive.
Once engineers and technical experts perfect commercial-scale manufacturing, production prices will come down, and cellulosic ethanol might double the volume of fuel coming from the same amount of land planted with sugarcane. There are currently two commercial plants producing cellulosic ethanol in Brazil: one from the GranBio group and the other one from Raízen.