Russian Scientist Drives Brazilian Biofuel Bonanza
Published: November 1, 2013 (Issue # 1784)
SAO PAULO, Brazil — Forget oil. The path toward better energy might lie in the humble potato.
Igor Polikarpov, a Russian physicist who has spent nearly 20 years helping build Brazil into a world industry leader in biofuel, says Russia could do with discarded potato peels what Brazil is doing with sugarcane stalks — creating an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuel.
Polikarpov knows what he is talking about. A native of the Volga river city of Ulyanovsk, Polikarpov is at the forefront of Brazil's pioneering drive to use so-called second-generation biofuels that convert waste and other nonedible material into fuel.
The bespectacled scientist, who moved to Brazil during the brain drain of the 1990s, is currently pursuing research to reduce the cost of turning sugarcane stalks into fuel, making the final product cheaper than gasoline.
"My research is not just for Brazil but for the world because the challenges are the same in all countries that already produce cellulosic ethanol, among them the U.S.," Polikarpov said from behind his desk at the Institute of Physics at the University of Sao Paulo, where he has worked as a full professor since 1995.
"Biofuel will become cheaper for the consumer and, therefore, more competitive compared with fossil fuels and even with first-generation biofuel," he said, speaking in fluent Portuguese.
Polikarpov said his main challenge is seeking out a cheaper method of "breaking" the cellulose of the sugarcane stalk.
He hopes one day to see his work embraced by Russia, which he said could have been a world leader in new technologies if it had pursued biofuel research from the World War II era instead of drilling for easy oil riches.
The Soviet Union produced second-generation biofuel on a significant scale during the war, primarily to meet the demands of its military fleet. But the technology, acid hydrolysis, produced relatively little biofuel and was not environmentally friendly.
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