Brazil wins race on alternative fuel

When the slick green and black racing car slammed across the finishing line at the world's most famous race last month, the Le Mans 24 Hours, it may have finished only in 17th place but the team knew it had won a remarkable first.

    Forty per cent of cars in the Sao Paulo slums use ethanol fuel

    The Nasamax DM139-Judd had passed what is known the world over as a fiercesome endurance test - running not on petrol but on bio-ethanol, an alcohol fuel distilled in northern France from sugar beet and potatoes.

    If it hadn't been for an engine misfire, says Nasamax team manager John McNeil "we know what lap time we could have had, and we know it would have put us safely in the top ten - even the top six. We have still shown that this fuel can be competitive in the top level of international motorsport."

    The achievement is just one example of how booze-fuelled cars are lining up for poll position. Or, as in Brazil's case, merely returning.

    Liquid gold

    Brazil became the centre of alternative fuel production in the 80s spurred by the oil shocks of the 1970s. The experiment reached its peak in 1985 when an astonishing 91% of cars produced that year ran on sugar-cane ethanol - the same fuel as the national spirit cachaca that makes the popular cocktail caipirinha.

    Brazil is now seen as a potential
    exporter of ethanol fuel

    But it was all economics, not ecology. When the oil prices fell and sugar prices rose becoming more profitable to export, the homegrown demand for alcohol-driven cars dropped leaving the "pro-Alcool" drive looking like little more than a blip. Going from zero in 1978 it was back to virtually none again by 1996.

    Now with the manufacture of new flex-fuel cars (FFVs), which can run on either ethanol or petrol, Brazil is trying once more. Economic factors have placed ethanol-driven cars back in contention and sales have shot back up.

    It could lead to Brazil drastically reducing its dependency on oil - it imports 80% - and becoming a world leader in the export of renewable fuels.

    Driven to diversify

    Other countries are eyeing-up a petrol-free motor future. China, which is building enough new highways to circle the Earth four times, is considering following Brazil's example and Thailand too is looking to follow suit.

    "At the last world conference on petroleum, which took place in Germany, it was clear that our sugarcane-based fuel is an attractive trade product for Brazil," said Maria das Gracas Foster, executive secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy recently. 

    "The country is seen as a supplier, a big potential exporter, one that is preferred by large nations who face the task of diversifying their energy sources."

    Demand for supply

    At the same time an effort is being made to increase domestic use, she said. Brazil still retains a network of refilling stations across the country, and particularly in Sao Paulo state where almost a quarter of the 180 million Brazilian population live. They all have the alcohol option side-by-side, pump-by-pump with petrol.

    Ethanol fuel is readily available
    at filling stations across Brazil

    About 40% of the cars around the perifeiria (the slums that circle Sao Paulo) still run on alcohol because they are the older cars from the 1980s.

    The network is key. According to the 2004 Motor Trends Alternative Fuel Review, there are already two million flex-fuel cars in America which could be running on alcohol tomorrow - but there are only 200 stations in the whole of the US.

    This is a 100% clean and renewable energy and it is has never been cheaper- selling at half the price of petrol in Brazil's stations.

    Green machines

    But as the French racing team showed, ethilic alcohol, or ethanol, can be obtained from all vegetables rich in sugar and from starch extracted from manioc, rice, potatoes or corn.

    Therefore any country that decided to invest in production and a network could use a local crop.

    Now French car giants Citroën, Peugeot and Renault are developing engines with flex-fuel systems to compete in the growing Brazilian market segment for cars that can run on petrol.

    The Nasamax team, meanwhile, will be back on the race circuit at British track Silverstone on 14 August in another powerful demonstration of alcohol fuel's moment has arrived.

    "We all really hope this is the start of a new and vibrant area of motorsport which will secure its future," says John McNeil. "And who can say that we're wrong to try this?"

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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