Bananas and Biotech Crops: Building Brazil’s Renewable and Biofuel Industries

By Pam Lincez

As I stepped off the flight deck, an instant brush with joy tickled across my face. I felt the warmth of the sun and the soft breeze coming off of the shore. Every breath was filled with the richness of cocoa and soft nut oils in the air and that sweet little jingle from the “Girl from Ipanema” softly played in the backdrop of my mind. I had finally arrived in Brazil.

Though I’d love to stroll the Copacabana and dance the samba all night, I was not here to entertain Brazilian tourism stereotypes. I came to Brazil on a mission. I was here to document the story of how planes, trains and automobiles will one day be built with Brazilian bananas.

Brazil’s Renewable Industry is Powered by Banana’s Nanocellulose Fibers

Bananas, as Alcides Lopes Leao and his team eloquently demonstrate with their new technology, are the new, outstanding contenders for Brazil’s renewable industry. Leao, who holds a doctorate in natural resources, and his team from the Sao Paulo State University along with collaborators, have created what may seem a fantastical concept—the possibility of using bananas as material to manufacture vehicles. Fortunately, the technology is a reality.

Nvate Brazil Bananas Nanocellulose Fibers Renewable and Biofuel Industry

The researchers announced at the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society that fibrous material from banana leaves and stems, called nanocellulose fibers, offer properties that surpass traditional petroleum-based plastics used for car parts such as dashboards, doors and bumpers. Published in the January 2011 Bioresource Technology journal, the researchers describe how the nanocellulose fibers are derived from the organic architectural material of banana leaves and stems, known as cellulose. As their name implies, the fibers are very small with a length of 5-30 nanometers and are only 1/50,000th as wide as a human hair.

When added to plastics, the nanocellulose fibers provide a stronger framework than traditional plastic fillers such as cellulose fibers and other polymer material. The nanocellulose fibers provide strength even greater than Kevlar, the material traditionally used in bulletproof vests. In a podcast posted by the American Chemical Society, Leao announced how he and his colleagues have capitalized on the strength of their technology, by forming a partnership with a company in Malaysia, with whom they plan to replace Kevlar and manufacture bulletproof vests with nanocellulose-based plastics.

Beyond their mighty strength, the nanocellulose fibers are very light in weight, so when incorporated in plastics for cars, they will produce a lighter car with greater fuel efficiency. The nanocellulose fibers also provide greater resistance to heat and chemical corrosion from gasoline. More importantly, since the nanocellulose fibers are derived from plant material, they are biodegradable and serve as a renewable technology.

Brazil’s Biofuel Industry: Second Largest Grower of Biotech Crops in the World

So how did Leao and his team isolate these extraordinary nanocellulose fibers from nature’s greatest fruit? In an interview with Reuters, Leao nicely demonstrates that the key to the best fiber isolation lies in the extraction method. Within a pressure cooker-like device, banana leaves and stems are exposed to a series of high pressure steam bursts, immediately followed by decompression—an explosion—and chemical processing. As a result, the steam explosion technique increases the quantity of usable cellulose from the plant material and the specific extraction of nano-sized fibers from cellulose. The extraction of biodegradable material from banana leaves and stems, pieces which are typically thrown away, creates a renewable process and capitalizes on one of Brazil’s best natural resources.

Renewable energy and biocrop production are thriving industries that are building a new, sophisticated image for Brazil. A recent brief from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications or ISAAA reported Brazil’s impressive stance as the second largest grower of biotech crops in the world. Strong economic gains in the billions of dollars at the farm level were prominently due to key biocrops sugarcane, cassava (an edible plant root), corn, oranges and soybeans. Roughly 8.5 million acres of farmland are dedicated to the growth of sugarcane for the production of ethanol, a significant contributor to the Brazilian biofuel industry.

The country has been immersed in immense economic growth in the past decade, earning its place amidst Russia, India, and China as a global economic force. In terms of biocrop production, Brazil stands in second place, closely behind the United States. Maintaining a focus in economic growth through renewable technologies is positively impacting Brazil’s global investment image and, at a smaller scale, with small community farmers.

The World Biofuels Markets news group reported that farmers in small Brazilian communities are contributing to the growth of Brazil’s booming economy by embracing the concept of renewables for energy and manufacturing. Pedro Rittenmeyer is part of a group of farmers in a sustainable cooperative that build methane production units from animal slurries that, in turn, improves the quality of soil and milk produced from the farmers’ cows.

It is hopefully only a matter of time before the embrace of renewable energy production will rub off across the lands to the banana farmers. And, on my next visit, I will get to entertain all those wonderful Brazilian stereotypes and drive to the Copacabana in a car made from Brazilian bananas.

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