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Centre for Integrated Energy Research

Philippa Usher - Brazil Placement

Over a period of 5 weeks in January/February 2012, DTC student Philippa Usher was hosted by Universidade Federal do Ceará (UFC) in the city of Fortaleza, and Petrobras Biocombustivel for a placement that would allow her to research the environmental and social impacts of biodiesel production in north east Brazil.

The university campus has a range of facilities including research centre NUTEC, where a biodiesel test rig is located. The university already works in partnership with Petrobras to investigate more efficient biodiesel production. The test rig is used both for experience for postgraduate mechanical and chemical engineering students and for generation of data for research into more efficient biodiesel production. Students gave Philippa a tour of the facilities, and worked with them to model the lifecycle emissions from the plant.

Petrobras biodiesel facility in Quixada

Along with two other students from UFC, Philippa visited the Petrobras plant in Quixadá. The unit has been operation for 3 years and has a capacity of 108,000m3 biodiesel/year. The operational manager from the Petrobras plant gave a thorough tour of the facility. He then presented Philippa with much information regarding the companies set up, the arrangement with the family farmers who supply a percentage of the oil for conversion to biodiesel. Philippa learnt about new projects Petrobras is investing in for biodiesel production, including new technologies and feedstocks, for example palm oil production in the state of Para. During the visit to the town of Quixadá, Philippa visited a castor bean processing unit, where the oil is extracted from the beans. The owner of the OLVEQ plant explained the process during a tour and answered questions. However, there was a language barrier during this part of the placement and unfortunately Philippa did not collect as much data as initially hoped for.

Castor bean processing facility in Quixada

Philippa had the opportunity to interview farmers who were involved in the social fuel label scheme. This scheme provides rural technical assistance and close contracts for the farmers, and guarantees payment within 7 days. There are also educational aspects for the local community who are encouraged to get involved with agriculture.

The placement gave Philippa a much better idea of the scale of the project being undertaken with regards to the biodiesel production and the challenges that are facing a sustainable production chain, in particular regarding the logistical challenges of feedstock and end product. The social impact of the scheme was clear from the interviews Philippa had with local people.