Researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP) are delving into the vast potential of Brazil’s sugar and alcohol sector to produce hydrogen sustainably. The ambitious project aims to utilize the biomass remnants from production processes and sugarcane ethanol itself to generate hydrogen, presenting a promising avenue for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

As global industries seek innovative solutions for decarbonization, hydrogen emerges as a key player. The research initiative led by the Bioenergy Research Group (GBio) at the Institute of Energy and Environment (IEE-USP) and the Research Center for Innovation in Greenhouse Gases (RCGI) intends to harness hydrogen’s potential in transforming the aviation sector.

Brazil boasts 358 sugarcane plants and 21 corn plants, forming a robust ethanol production infrastructure. Researchers plan to scrutinize data from these plants, evaluating their capacity to produce hydrogen. The objective is to ascertain the viability of extracting hydrogen from biomass residues and sugarcane ethanol, laying the groundwork for a sustainable aviation fuel source.

Hydrogen, produced from biomass, presents a competitive alternative to electrolysis-based hydrogen. The study acknowledges hydrogen’s versatility, with potential applications ranging from fertilizer production to fuel for various modes of transport and, notably, sustainable aviation fuel.

The aviation industry faces the challenge of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050. A study by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) indicates that, out of the 390 billion liters of global aviation kerosene production, merely 14 million liters constitute sustainable aviation fuel. Shifting to sustainably produced alternatives becomes imperative to achieve emission reduction goals efficiently.

The research project emphasizes the importance of circular bioeconomy principles, especially when utilizing biomass residues like sugarcane bagasse. Second-generation (2G) ethanol, derived from sugarcane bagasse, is considered more sustainable, aligning with the circular bioeconomy concept by preventing waste accumulation and obviating the need for additional planting areas.

To execute this ambitious plan, researchers will leverage a comprehensive database created during a prior RCGI project. The study, expected to last approximately one year, aims to estimate the hydrogen production potential across different routes, including ethanol reforming, biogas utilization, and water electrolysis, leveraging surplus electricity.

The study is supported by the USPSusten program and the National Institute of Science and Technology (INCT) for Bioethanol, receiving essential funding from FAPESP and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). Collaborative efforts between academia and industry players, such as Shell, underscore the significance of private and public partnerships in advancing sustainable solutions.

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