Corn Ethanol Catches Up Quickly in Argentina

Researchers study sustainability, greenhouse gas emissions. This article is published in the June issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Jorge Antonio Hilbert | May 11, 2016

Argentina’s corn and sugarcane production for bioethanol is part of a production system that cannot be analyzed in isolation. Political and market factors, both nationally and internationally, played a part in the development and growth of the corn and sugarcane industries. Research on corn-based biofuel is relatively new in Argentina where conventional studies up to now have targeted mostly soybeans and biodiesel production.

In Argentina, the evolution of the agricultural system has been characterized by continuous technological improvement. This has changed the entire agricultural system and established a base for meeting societies’ growing demands for environmentally and socially responsible goods. Argentina has developed an important and sophisticated network of research institutions and producer organizations related to agriculture and agribusiness.

Awareness of sustainability has grown throughout Argentina’s agricultural system, with a special emphasis on soybean production. Government agencies at all levels and the private sector are adopting new trends in enterprise management such as fair trade, social enterprises, corporate social responsibility and sustainability certification schemes.

Concrete advances have been made in developing sustainability criteria and indicators, defining best practices, certifying agricultural systems and managing land use accountability. Two certification schemes target biofuels: Carmara Argentina de Biocombustibles (Carbio) and Agricultural Certifiada AC.

Technological developments aiding the environment include reduced agrochemical toxicity, improved application technologies, direct seeding, precision agriculture and increased yields that reduce pressure on land conversion. Improved regulations have resulted in better control of land usage development.

About 85 percent of farmers have adopted no-till. Argentine corn production is based on no-till farming systems first developed in the late 1980s with the objectives of reducing soil erosion and degradation. Some studies show the advantages of no-till include 96 percent less soil erosion, 66 percent less fuel used, higher soil biological activity, increased fertility, lower costs and lower carbon emissions.

Biofuels Framework
In Argentina, the biofuel regulatory framework is based on a 2006 law that regulates the production and sustainable use of biofuels and establishes a system for their production. The 2006 law mandated a 5 percent blend of biofuels into gasoline and diesel, measured over the total quantity of final product. In 2010, biodiesel quotas were established and, in 2014, the blend rate increased to 10 percent with thermoelectric generation included. This year, the ethanol blend rate increased to 12 percent.

Biofuel producers must be authorized to operate by the National Secretariat of Energy. They undergo an environmental impact assessment that includes effluent treatment and waste management. The producers must also meet biofuel quality and sustainability requirements.

Bioethanol has a long story in Argentina. Sugarcane was introduced in 1550 to Tucuman, the northwest province that pioneered biofuels in the country. Tucuman began actions to enforce the use of alcohol in gasoline in 1978 and by 1988, alcohol sales had increased by 122 percent. The program established a mandatory mixture of 15 percent alcohol in gasoline, with a tax exemption for the alcohol. Due to the fiscal impact, however, the Argentine government did not update the prices established by the Secretariat of Energy for alcohol, which led to reduced revenue and, ultimately, abandonment of the program.

Today, sugarcane bioethanol production is concentrated in northwest Argentina (NWA). During 2015, nearly 25 million tons of sugarcane from a total area of 380,000 hectares (940,000 acres) was processed. Three provinces are responsible for 98.5 percent of the national production of sugar: Tucuman at 62.6 percent, Jujuy at 24.7 percent and Salta, 11.2 percent. There are 23 sugar mills scattered across the country, 20 are in the NWA, and, out of those, 15 are in Tucuman.

Moreover, 16 of the 20 sugar mills in NWA are distilleries, and 10 of those manufacture anhydrous ethanol. In 2009, two distilleries manufactured 2.1 million tons of ethanol (700 million gallons), which increased dramatically the next year with the addition of six distilleries.

Comparatively, corn ethanol plants have a short history and are unique in Argentina because farmers have had a significant say, either as direct investors or via the cooperative system. Located primarily in the provinces of Cordoba and Santa Fe, ethanol product is shipped long distances to the ports. Ethanol production technologies are in alignment with the new concepts linked to energy optimization and environmental care.

Biofuels Studies
A deep revision is underway of the negative paradigm surrounding first-generation biofuel production from food crops. While second-generation alternatives have been heavily promoted internationally, the agricultural systems supporting first-generation biofuels present several advantages:

• They produce significate human and animal food products of high quality.

• They have the flexibility to reduce biofuel production and increase food or feed output should climate disorders, crop disease or insect infestations reduce food production, or in the case of commercial rule changes.

• They rely on mature technologies undergoing continuous improvements with well-developed farm and industrial machinery.

• They already have established a robust logistical supply chain that is shared by a variety of products.
Due to the strategic importance of corn and ethanol production industries, the rural engineering department of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering (INTA) initiated a series of studies taking a systemic look at biofuels, coproducts, energy efficiencies, emissions, logistics and infrastructure.

Our study adopted international protocols and methodologies to understand the complex interactions between Argentine agriculture, the agro-industrial sector, biofuels and bioproducts, with a goal of complying with overseas commercial requirements. The results highlight the variability in agriculture and demonstrates the importance of long-term research. The complexity within the multiple relationships among products is important to understand.  

 For example, Acabio, a 125 MMly capacity dry-mill, demonstrates the distinctive advantage of zero effluent concept where water output consists of only vapor condensation and rain water. The high-protein animal feed production can reach 140,000 tons. A cogeneration plant provides all the required steam and electricity. The recent addition of a plant for CO2 capture and purification has had an important environmental impact by reducing emissions by approximately 70 percent.

A life-cycle analysis included emissions from agricultural production, raw material transport, industrial operations for the production of biofuels and coproducts and transport to local and overseas destinations. 

Emissions at Acabio for 2014-’15 totaled 124,150 tons of carbon dioxide. After allocating emissions to each of the products, ethanol’s share amounts to 23 grams CO2 equivalent per megajoule.  The analysis showed 54 percent of emissions came from the industrial phase of ethanol conversion, 35 percent from corn feedstock production and 11 percent from transportation. 

A similar life-cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is underway for sugarcane-based ethanol production in Argentina. A much older industry than corn-ethanol, new investments at existing plants are producing improvements in the mills’ environmental impacts and emissions that should demonstrate better GHG savings than previously estimated.

Author: Jorge Antonio Hilbert
Professional Advisor,
International Management and Innovation,
Institute of Agricultural Engineering (INTA)
Buenos Aires, Argentina