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Is Brazilian sugarcane the answer to U.S. biofuel needs?

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Desmond Boylan/Reuters/File

(Read caption) U.S.-made 1952 Chevrolet car. Brazil believes ethanol made from sugarcane can supplement corn-based ethanol produced in the United States.

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Is Brazilian sugarcane the perfect biofuel for American drivers?

Brazil believes ethanol made from sugarcane can supplement corn-based ethanol produced in the United States, which would help meet U.S. government targets for increased biofuel consumption.

Under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the U.S. is required to gradually increase the consumption of biofuels. The goal is to increase production from 4.7 billion gallons per year in 2007 to 36 billion gallons per year in 2022. 

As of August 31, Brazil has shipped 330 million gallons of sugarcane ethanol to the U.S., compared to 267 million gallons during the same period in 2012.

Brazil exported a total of 403 million gallons to the U.S. last year.

Those exports can now compete head-to-head with U.S. ethanol produced from corn. In December 2011, Congress ended most ethanol subsidies, including a protective tariff of 54 cents per gallon on imported ethanol.

Two groups are working to promote sugarcane for use as a biofuel: UNICA, the trade group that represents the Brazilian sugarcane industry, and the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (also known as Apex-Brasil), a government agency focused on economic development.

One advantage sugarcane ethanol has over corn-based ethanol is in productivity. One acre of crops produces roughly 300 gallons of corn ethanol, but the rate for sugarcane ethanol is closer to 600 gallons per acre.

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Importing ethanol could also help sidestep criticism over domestic ethanol production's impact on food production, land use, water consumption, and carbon emissions.

Still, it's difficult to tell whether Americans will want any of that extra government-mandated ethanol.

AAA has resisted the introduction of E15, a blend of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline, claiming that it is not compatible with most vehicles--despite EPA certification of E15 for use in 2001 and newer vehicles.

A recent poll--conducted by biofuels advocacy group Fuels America--shows significant consumer interest in ethanol-gasoline fuel blends.

Eighty-two percent of respondents claimed they supported having E15 at gas stations; 76 percent said they would use blends with more ethanol.


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