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VW Thinks Bioethanol Is the Path to Carbon Neutrality in Emerging Markets

It is never enough to repeat that, much like beating the COVID-19 pandemic, carbon neutrality cannot be limited to a few countries. Either you fight that all over the world, or you are fooling yourself into doing anything practical. If poor countries cannot buy vaccines, COVID-19 will stick around just waiting for a more potent variant to develop. If they can’t buy electric cars, good luck with lowering carbon levels in the atmosphere. Volkswagen seems to have a solution for the second issue: bioethanol. However, the brand’s CEO did not mention fuel cells a single time in his LinkedIn text about that.
Ralf Brandstätter defended in a text on LinkedIn that bioethanol is key to cut carbon dioxide emissions for a reason most people fail to understand: it is produced from plants. In Brazil, it comes from sugar cane, which captures carbon from the atmosphere in the photosynthesis process. That makes it release carbon that was already there in the first place.

Fossil fuels are a problem because they release carbon that was imprisoned under the soil for millions of years. That natural carbon capture allowed us to reach a constant level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When we started burning those fuels by the end of the 19th century, carbon levels increased dramatically.

What this additional carbon did was worsen the greenhouse effect, not create it, as some believe. These folks also think this phenomenon is bad, but it is right the opposite. Earth maintains temperatures that allow life to happen precisely due to the greenhouse effect, which keeps them more or less stable thanks to the gases in the atmosphere. When the volume of these gases rises, the temperature also gets higher – and this is the issue with more carbon around.

In his defense of bioethanol, Brandstätter clarified sugar cane farms do not occupy more than 0,8% of the Brazilian territory. He also said it is very far from the Amazon to slash the ignorant concerns about it killing the rainforest. The real danger to Amazon are pastures for cattle and the lumber industry. Finally, the Volkswagen brand CEO mentioned that WWF (World Wildlife Fund) published a study stating that 72% of Brazil’s fuel demands could be supplied by biofuels in 2030 only by optimizing degraded pastures.

Despite all these arguments, Brandstätter did not mention something crucial to all his defense of bioethanol: every single fuel station in Brazil has a bioethanol pump. In other words, people with vehicles powered by it will only worry about range if there is a shortage of bioethanol – something that has already happened in the past, mind you. But there's a massive problem with the executive’s defense of this renewable fuel.

The most efficient way of using bioethanol is associated with a reformer and fuel cells. The reformers would convert the fuel into hydrogen and supply the fuel cell in the car to power its electric motors. The issue here is cost, but Nissan is already researching SOFC (solid oxide fuel cells) in Brazil, which are much less expensive than the current ones. Summing up, bioethanol would be a great way to store hydrogen.

Brandstätter implies that VW's solution is the use of flex fuel combustion engines. They are able to burn ethanol, something offered in Brazil since 2003. Some recent articles in the Brazilian press state that Volkswagen will try to create hybrid vehicles that run on ethanol. Again, Toyota offers them in the country since September 2019. Burning ethanol will still create pollutant gases and deal with the low energy efficiency of engines: the best ones convert only 40% of the fuel energy into movement.

If the idea is to use a combustion engine that burns ethanol without spending much money, the best idea so far also comes from Nissan. Vehicles with the e-Power technology use combustion engines solely as generators, which allows them to work in a much more efficient way. The company was supposed to introduce the technology in Brazil in 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic postponed it to 2023. When it is put for sale in Brazil, the Kicks e-Power will be able to burn ethanol, gasoline or any mix of both these fuels in any proportion. Honda has a similar system called e:HEV, but the combustion engine also drives the vehicle. In the e-Power, only electric motors power the wheels.

If Volkswagen really wants to adopt bioethanol as a clean solution, it should focus on using it efficiently. The company should also consider making it a lasting strategy, preparing its units in Brazil to keep producing those cars in the future. Again, Brandstätter’s texts give us a hint about that. According to the executive, bioethanol would be “an effective bridging technology.”

The logical conclusion is that VW’s final plan would be to sell electric cars in emerging markets when they reach price parity with combustion-engined machines. Until that happens, the company will use bioethanol as a provisional remedy. Toyota has followed that path with its hybrids and is currently complaining that governments are pushing EVs in Europe and the US.

The future of personal mobility is electric. Anything other than preparing customers, suppliers, and all the automotive industry for that future risks being a short-lived formula that may leave many of them behind. Countries currently with proud automotive industries may soon see themselves as Australia: without local production. Ford was the first to stop production in that country in 2016. It may be no coincidence that it also closed its factories in Brazil last January.


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