Dual Fuel Cars Revive Brazil's Alcohol Industry
By Mario Osava*
The new "bi-fuel" vehicles could expand the use of renewable energy, which had been on the decline in the late 1990s.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil's automotive industry, which had made advances in using fuel alcohol as a means to confront the oil crisis of the 1970s, is taking another step, manufacturing cars that run on gasoline, alcohol or a mix of the two -- and maintaining the same level of vehicle performance.
The car manufacturers Volkswagen, of German origins, and the U.S.-based General Motors put the first dual fuel vehicles on the market here in April and June, respectively. The technogical innovation is a result of Brazilian industry, although the two companies are transnationals.
The result benefits the environment, because reducing gasoline consumption and increasing alcohol use means lower emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, Manoel Paulo de Toledo, engineering and inspection manager for the Sao Paulo state technology and environment entity CETESB, told Tierramérica.
Substituting a fossil fuel with a plant-based renewable fuel "is the correct route to take," especially for curbing climate change, agrees Eduardo quartim, project coordinator at the Ecoar Institute, a Sao Paulo environmental group.
Furthermore, explained CETESB's Toledo, alcohol production creates economic and social benefits for Brazil because it "generates employment and gives the rural population a reason to stay."
Sugar cane, the raw material for alcohol, absorbs as much or more carbon dioxide than what is emitted by alcohol comubstion. And sugar cane byproducts, like the pulp and sediments, are used to generate electricity and as fertliser.
The bi-fuel automobile increases Brazil's opportunities to export vehicles, alcohol and automotive technology. Several countries, including the United States, China and Canada, already consume gasoline with alcohol added.
There are nearly two million "flex fuel" cars in the United States, but there the process "is different because they use a mix with a maximum of 85 percent alcohol," which obligates adding 15 percent gasoline, noted Joao Alvarez Filho, Volkswagen manager for engines and transmission.
The new Brazilian models can run on just gasoline, or 100 percent alcohol, or any proportion mix of the two, he said in a coversation with Tierramérica. The company prefers to call this innovation "total flex", to reflect the true range of possibilities.
The Brazilian advantage was to develop the dual fuel-based on cars that run exclusively on alcohol, which the country has produced for more than 25 years, a pioneer in the technology.
As of July, 6,100 of these new cars had been sold, and buyer satisfaction is high, but it is too early to predict just how far the market for total flex vehicles will go. Some experts believe that in the long term all Brazilian cars will be bi-fuel. Another possibility is that the dual fuel will "kill" the alcohol-only engine.
Volkswagen began to develop the new cars four years ago, with the sole objective of "allowing users complete freedom in choosing fuels," said Alvarez.
But the new car is also a response to drivers' worries about alcohol supplies. Alcohol-fuelled cars conquered the Brazilian market in the 1980s, and represented more than 90 percent of car manufacturing within a few years. Cheap alcohol and expensive gasoline pushed this trend.
But alcohol shortages in 1989 and 1990 sharply undermined the popularity of the new fuel. Sales of alcohol-powered cars plummeted to less than one percent of total vehicle sales.
Also contributing to the decline was the fact that oil prices fell, and that the state-owned oil giant Petrobrás, a monopoly at the time, wanted to sell within Brazil the fuel that it was exporting at a loss, says Alfred Szwarc, technical consultant for the Sugar Cane Agro-Industry Union, an organisation of Brazil's major sugar and alcohol producers.
Now the bi-fuel car has emerged because petroleum prices have gone up again, with the international price at 25 to 30 dollars a barrel, more than twice what was 13 or 14 years ago, Szwarc noted in a conversation with Tierramérica.
The fact that dual fuel vehicles are on the market is helping consumers get past their hesitations about alcohol-only motors. Drivers are no longer subject to shortages or high prices of one fuel or the other, because they can always use the cheaper one.
As for the environmental benefits, for now there are no major differences in Brazil in the level of contaminants -- carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons or nitrogen oxide -- produced by alcohol and gasoline-driven cars, according to Toledo.
Alcohol generates more aldehydes, carcinogenic substances, but gasoline produces "innumerable substances that are at least as toxic" as aldehydes, he said.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.