The Father of Biodiesel wages war on socially incorrect eco-fuel
production in Brazil
Acclaimed in Brazil, he invents a green fuel for aviation. Thanks to his
fame, professor Expedito Parente is now on the brink of launching a vast
agro-industrial project in the Nordeste region based on cooperatives,
also serving as a model for reducing extreme rural poverty in tropical
Rio de Janeiro - At 66 of age, doutor Expedito has never been so
requested. His bioquerosene should be a way to reduce carbon dioxide
emissions in aviation and to prepare for a gradual substitution of jet
fuel. Tests have been performed since mid-2006 and are believed to soon
enter a decisive stage at Boeing's facilities in Seattle. Contrary to
bioethanol and biodiesel already established in road transportation
worldwide, biojet fuel is a vegetable product which has still not been
in commercial use.
For a long time, Expedito Parente was a professor at Ceara Federal
University in Fortaleza, a large city in Brazil's Nordeste region. When
he retired, this hyperactive academic needed something essential to do.
In 2001, he thus founded Tecbio, a small engineering firm conceiving
biodiesel refineries. It was nicely timed. Tecbio has now a staff of
eighty and is growing exponentially. But Dr. Parente nourishes a double
obsession really: to be the first to make airlines adopt biojet fuel, an
important technological step ahead of ordinary biodiesel, and producing
this biofuel in Brazil in a socially correct way.
In 2005, professor Parente won the Blue Sky Award for his aircraft fuel
project, « a kind of Nobel prize given by the UN for innovations in the
field of renewable energies », he comments.
Interest for the invention was confirmed at the beginning of this year
at a Washington D.C. seminar organized by the Transportation Research
Board, a government agency. In the very long run, algae and cell fuels
are thought to stand for permanent solutions. But participants were
confronted with an apparently absurd question: "May Babassu already be a
renewable source to serve as substitute for jet fuel ?"
This totally unknown palm tree grows in the wild on forty-five million
acres in Brazil. Such size corresponds to six Maryland. It was Expedito
Parente who discovered that the nuts of the Babassu - or more precisely
the kernels within - possess energetic proprieties which are ideal for
conceiving biojet fuel.
There are certainly social and ecological arguments in favor of the
Babassu: its use does not contribute to food shortages, nor does it
In reality the discovery is not recent. To some extent Professor Parente
is performing a spectacular comeback. In the 80s he was the first in the
world to patent biodiesel as an industrial process. He was acclaimed as
the "Father of Biodiesel". This brilliant academic was then asked to
find a vegetable substitute for aircraft fuel. The product resulting
from this research made a turboprop transportation airplane fly a
distance of some 600 miles in 1984. So why did not aviation worldwide
adopt his bioquerosene?
- At the time, petroleum prices went down dramatically. And we must
understand that a fuel to be acceptable for modern jetliners has to be
extremely reliable and resistant at very low temperatures, it is a
complex product, he explains.
There is a new dimension to what is at stake. To fly from London to Rio,
and back, provokes individually as much CO2 emissions as those generated
during fifteen months of sedentary life in a European capital, heating
and local transportation included, if we are to believe comparative
studies of environmental impacts. Already, air transportation operators
supply travelers with different service contributions to buy, in
compensation for greenhouse effect emissions.
Globally, airlines gulp down 26 billion gallons of fuel per year, and
this figure may double in twenty years. 20 per cent of their operational
costs correspond to fuel. For the first time in 2006, the fuel bill
exceeded costs for staff in the sector. Sir Richard Branson, British
business mogul, scorching supporter of many environmental causes, but
mainly founder and president of the Virgin group which counts several
air transportation carriers, said in a recent interview that "immediate
solutions" should be found.
Could the Babassu make the difference ? A Brazilian law grants the local
population the right to collect Babassu nuts freely, independently of
who owns the land. A situation of ecological balance totally opposed to
the one to be observed in Malaysia or Indonesia, known to shelter the
largest palm tree plantations in the world, but also encouraging
deforestation and boosting the greenhouse effect as the original jungle
is frequently permited to be burnt down.
Today, biojet fuel does not seem to be entirely competitive though, as
jet fuel derived from petroleum is sold free from taxes at 1,5 USD per
gallon, which is still very cheap.
- Soon there will be eco-taxes on aviation fuel. And I am pretty sure
that authorities will make it mandatory to blend conventional fuel with
biojet when available. Costs will also shrink significantly when
industrial production is started, underlines Dr. Parente.
But will not land areas needed be gigantic? Doutor Expedito has a ready
- If 20 per cent of aviation fuel were to be produced in form of green
fuel for blending, such volumes would correspond to some 30 million
acres land. It's a huge territory, I agree, but it is less than the
existing Babassu forests.
Tecbio and its involuntarily hype boss have furthermore a very clear
social vision. This is important to emphasize, as bioethanol mills using
sugar cane as raw material has not reduced poverty in the Brazilian
countryside. Seasonal plantation workers called boias frias ("cold
billies") have a hard time. Because of piece-work, a Brazilian cane
cutter will only 'last' twelve years, less than a slave in ancient
times, according to a recent study.
Professor Parente gets upset:
- Such conditions are intolerable. We have our own model which pretends
to reconcile social development and industrial dynamics. At present
date, Tecbio is leading two pilot projects in collaboration with federal
authorities. The idea is to create cooperative units, in association
with the local population, for a socially correct production of
biodiesel derived from Babassu kernel oil. Respecting the environment,
this model should be replicated in other regions, for examples in
deforested areas of the Amazon and in Africa.
But is it not utopian wanting to assemble two operational methods which
are normally dissociated: the small-scale traditional way versus output
through high-tech plants ? Expedito Parente holds out his arms. He makes
one think of a talented film maker who, after years of prospecting, has
just received unlimited funds to shoot an ambitious picture based on an
- One has to be pragmatic. We work with feasibility from an economic
point of view. Running a cooperative does not mean that it should not be
profitable. In a basic scheme, each cooperative shall produce three
million liters [800,000 gallons] of biodiesel/biojet fuel per year,
together with several other products originated from the nuts. There
will be some agriculture. All the electricity consumed in the
cooperative shall be generated organically on the spot. Each cooperative
is giving part-time jobs to 3,000 peasants. On the other hand we study
also ecologically run Babassu plantations.
To produce one billion liters of biojet fuel, [270 million gallons] at
least 300 such cooperatives are needed. This is certainly a
time-consuming project. Plans are allowed to be extensive though,
changeover seems to be secured. Of four children, Doutor Expedito has
one son working at Tecbio. At age 26 and a chemical engineer as his
father, he already takes part in management. His name is premonitory :
Expedito Parente Junior...
Check for earlier Pacific Biofuel posts: http://pacbiofuel.blogspot.com/