Brazil turns sugar cane into sweet oil savings

Fuel grown on farmlands? That is not so fanciful as it sounds, as fuelshort Brazil has been demonstrating successfully for the past decade.

Using a combination of gasoline and alcohol, from sugar cane and manioc, called gasohol, Brazilians have stretched their expensive fuel imports and in the process done pioneering work on the product.

With the United States just now beginning its own serious study of gasohol as a commercial supplement to short fuel supplies, it could well look to Brazil for inspiration.

This South American land, struggling with an oil imports bill that totals more than $8 billion annually, not only has pioneered gasohol studies for the past decade but also, and perhaps more importantly, is fueling more than 10 percent of the country's 8 million vehicles with various gasohol mixtures.

By 1985, it is expected this percentage will jump to something in te neighborhood of 25 percent. Gasohol will save Brazil upward of $3 billion annually, planners believe.

This is important in a developing country that relies so heavily on expensive imported oil to fuel its burgeoning economy. Brazil produces less than 15 percent of its oil at home. The rest is imported from Africa and the Middle East.

To relieve this situaton, Brazilian planners have been experimenting since the late 1960s with all sorts of alcohol and gasoline mixtures. The technology, they admit, is still in its infancy.

Primitive forms of the product actually were used in the US and elsewhere during World War II, when oil supplied were often uncertain. But the low cost of oil through the 1950s and 1960s did not encourage the further development of gasoline and alcohol mixtures in the more developed countries.

Brazil, however, worried about its heavy dependence on imported fuel through these years. Toward the end of the 1960s, agricultural and petroleum engineers, under the aegis of PEtrobras, the state-owned oil enterprise, began their studies of petroleum supplements.

Brazil has invested $2 billion in the development of gasohol -- expanding sugar cane and manioc crop acreage, and constructing huge industrial distilleries to mix the cane, which Brazil produces in great quantities, with manioc. It has also added facilities to its oil refineries to mix petroleum with the alcohol.

Present production hovers arond 1.5 billion gallons. This is expected to go up to 3.2 billion by 1985. Development costs will have reached about $7 billion by then, a small sum compared to the cost of imported oil, Part of the funds will be used to expand cropland devoted to sugar cane and manioc.

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