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Sugarcane ethanol is a renewable fuel produced from sugarcane. Compared to other types of ethanol available today, sugarcane ethanol offers the greatest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The sugarcane ethanol production process helps explain these benefits. Also see these benefits on the virtual tour of the full ethanol production process in a cane mill in Brazil.

Graphic depicting the steps in the sugarcane ethanol production process.

Step 1: Cultivation


Sugarcane is grown in the United States, Brazil and more than 100 countries. Sugarcane is highly efficient in converting sunlight, water and CO2 into stored energy. Remember photosynthesis in science class? This energy is stored in the form of sucrose in the stalks and makes sugarcane seven times more efficient than corn in the production of ethanol.

Step 2: Harvest


Sugarcane is a semi-perennial crop – meaning the same plant may be harvested (without uprooting the plant) and re-grown while maintaining high yields for up to seven years. Until recently, most sugarcane crops around the world were first burned to remove unusable materials and then manually cut. However, trends toward increased mechanization will continue to reduce the manual labor involved in cane cutting. In fact, nearly half of Brazilian sugarcane is now harvested by machines with 100% mechanical harvesting anticipated later this decade.

Step 3: Refining


Once at the mill, cane stalks are crushed to extract sucrose, which is then refined to make table sugar, fuel ethanol or other products. In Brazil, the leftover biomass (known as bagasse) is burned in high-efficiency boilers to make the mill completely self-sufficient while generating surplus electricity that supplies about 5% of the country’s growing energy needs. As mechanical harvesting increases, more biomass will be available for electricity generation and to produce cellulosic biofuels.

Step 4: Clean, Renewable Fuel

  • Clean - Compared to gasoline, sugarcane ethanol cuts greenhouse gases by more than 60%. That’s better than any other liquid biofuel produced today in large quantities. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently confirmed sugarcane ethanol’s superior environmental performance by categorizing it as an “Advanced Renewable Fuel” that is required to make up a larger portion of America’s future energy supplies. And, other environmental experts agree.
  • Economic growth – Increasing sugarcane production and processing contributes significantly to economic growth and development. More than 100 tropical countries - many of them needing expanded economic opportunities - grow sugarcane and could build upon Brazil's successful experience.
  • Secure – Sugarcane ethanol is one more good option for diversifying U.S. energy supplies and improving energy security, so Americans are not reliant on any one source or country.

Be sure to check out the virtual tour of the inner workings of a cane mill.


copyright 2010 Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association