While many North Americans may not know it, Brazil presently leads the world in deploying biofuels for road vehicles.

Specifically, a majority of cars sold in Brazil--especially lower-priced high-volume models built in the country--can run either on gasoline or pure ethanol.

Brazilian sugarcane

Brazilian sugarcane

The modern history dates back to 1975, when the South American country began its “Programa Nacional Álcohol” to counteract the soaring oil and gasoline prices that followed the 1973 oil crisis.

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Even before then, however, ethanol had been blended into Brazil's gasoline supplies, starting with a 5-percent mix in 1931.

During World War II, with German submarine attacks threatening the country's oil supply, the "gasoline" used to fuel cars of the 1920s and 1930s could contain as much as 50 percent ethanol,

The country's use of ethanol over the last 40 years can be divided into two eras: the ethanol-only-car era, and the flex-fuel era.

From cane field to tank

But following the 1973 oil-price shock, the country's main agricultural crop, sugar cane, was pressed into duty for a new purpose: it served as the feedstock for ethanol refineries, creating a largely renewable liquid fuel that could be used to replace gasoline altogether in powering internal combustion engines.

Ethanol molecule flask

Ethanol molecule flask

Cars capable of running on ethanol arrived on the Brazilian market in the late 1970s. In those days, before electronic fuel injection replaced carburetors, they could run either on E100 ethanol or conventional gasoline—but not both.

Those first ethanol-powered cars included popular models from Fiat, Renault, Volkswagen, and other makers. The Fiat 147 was the first commercially available ethanol-capable car sold in dealerships, starting in July 1979.

The Volkswagen Sedan 1300 entered production that year as well, and by October 1980, the rest of the VW lineup in Brazil offered ethanol-capable models.

Still, many of those cars suffered from a reluctance to start in cold weather, and sometimes erratic running characteristics.

Cars for the poor

Ethanol was then cheaper than gasoline—even after accounting for the lower energy content that produces fewer miles per gallon—but many Brazilians today recall those early E100 vehicles as “poor peoples’ cars,” bought solely because they were cheaper to own and run.

Fuel filler of Volkswagen Gol, Brazilian flex-fuel vehicle

Fuel filler of Volkswagen Gol, Brazilian flex-fuel vehicle

But sales tumbled when gasoline prices fell in the early 1990s; ethanol production remained tightly regulated, and consequently expensive, so it no longer offered a cheaper way to drive.

Nonetheless, conventional “petrol” in Brazil soon became a blend of gasoline and ethanol as well.

Since 1993, the mix has stood at E22, or 22 percent ethanol—though the percentage is set annually, varying between 20 and 25 percent, depending on each year’s sugar crop yield.

A new era of ethanol use arrived in the early 2000s, when far more capable computerized engine-control units and port fuel injection allowed the introduction of flex-fuel cars. They could run on E100, E22 petrol, or any mix in between that might be produced by refilling a tank with a different fuel.

Pump with multiple ethanol/gasoline blends.

Pump with multiple ethanol/gasoline blends.

New flex-fuel era

The first carmaker to launch such flex-fuel vehicles in Brazil was Volkswagen. It introduced the first Gol capable of running on any liquid fuel (including the G100 gasoline found in Argentina) in March 2003.

Built since 1980, the VW Gol has now been Brazil’s most popular vehicle for 27 years. Volkswagen do Brasil has built more than 7.5 million of the five-door hatchback, which would be considered a subcompact in North America. (The small VW is also a major export earner for Brazil, with more than 1 million Gols sold in 60 countries around the world.)

Volkswagen now builds flex-fuel capability into every engine and every car manufactured in Brazil. Close to a dozen other carmakers do the same, including Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, and Toyota.

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Corn Ethanol Pump

Corn Ethanol Pump

Combating climate change

By the time the new flex-fuel cars had established themselves in showrooms, ethanol had come to be viewed as having two separate advantages. Not only was it a renewable fuel that could insulate car owners from oil-price fluctuations, it could also cut climate-changing gas emissions from vehicle transport.

The carbon dioxide produced by burning ethanol in an engine is roughly the same as the amount of CO2 its feedstock (sugar cane, in this case) absorbs from the air during photosynthesis. That means it’s considered to be a carbon-neutral fuel—unlike gasoline, which adds CO2 to the atmosphere.

Caveats to that distinction include the energy required to sow, harvest, and process the sugar cane, as well as more diffuse impacts on overall agriculture and other uses for the sugar cane.

Still, Brazil’s ethanol crops yield twice as much of the liquid fuel—roughly 600 gallons per acre against 300 gallons per acre—as the corn-based ethanol that dominates in the U.S.

Volkswagen provided airfare, lodging, and meals to assist High Gear Media in bringing you this article.


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