Welcome Letter

Cylon Gonçalves da Silva

            In a world of many disagreements, perhaps on one point we can find almost universal agreement: Energy, in all of its aspects, will be a critical concern in this century.

            From the demand side, the goals of eliminating world poverty and of generally improving standards of living for most of mankind, sets the scale of the challenge. A 2 kW per capita society, and this is a relatively modest number, for 15 billion human beings, amounts to a total primary power demand of 30 TW; twice as much as the present day amount. At the very cheap price of US$ 1,000 per kW of installed generating capacity, we are talking about investments, for generation only, of 15 trillion dollars. And who believes in this bargain price these days, especially when we will need new, some yet unproven even undiscovered, technologies and probably new distribution networks? Of course, we are talking about investments spread over decades, not years. But, even so, the physical and financial scales of this enterprise are staggering.

            Scale sets the quantitative challenge. But quality is not a lesser concern. Looking at the supply side, from the technical point of view, we know perfectly well what our alternatives are at the scales required. Not many. In fact, only one real hope: solar energy and its transforms. Nuclear energy, the recent tragedy in Japan notwithstanding, remains an option, at best, for a transitional period. With present day technologies and identified resources, nuclear energy can supply a total of 200.000 TWeh[1], the equivalent of six years of the projected electricity demand for 2030. As for fossil fuels, which we may classify as a transform of solar energy, the debate seems to be moving away from reserves to consequences, from uncertainties in peak production years to certainties of climate change. Fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydropower dominate the primary energy supply today. Hydropower (again a form of solar energy) is inherently limited by geophysical considerations. These three technologies are frozen into capital assets of long duration. In a world going through uncertain economic times, it is highly unlikely that they will be dumped overnight in favor of new, more expensive, supply limited technologies. So, the world will have to, the best it can, muddle through an energy crisis and its social, economic, and geopolitical consequences that will be long and could be severe. Not a nice prospect, nor a very optimistic one. But, I am afraid, fairly realistic.

            We have a very significant flux of energy at our disposal: our good old faithful fusion reactor, the Sun. It tries to help, but the best it can do is send us an almost steady supply of electromagnetic power. We have technologies to transform this radiant power into electricity or to store it into chemical bonds. The problem is that these technologies are still too inefficient and expensive. We might say, contrary to the pessimistic view, that our energy problems are solved in principle. It is only a matter of money and political will. This would be true if only the inefficiencies and costs did not have environmental consequences and physical and financial constraints. We are working hard, spending a lot less than we should, but nonetheless spending in R&D, to find new and better solutions to the conversion of solar energy. I believe that we will find these solutions, sooner or later. But their deployment will be costly and slow. In the meantime, we must still survive.

            Plants exist because chance and evolution invented and perfected photosynthesis, an astonishing and still somewhat mysterious molecular mechanism to convert solar radiant power into stocks of chemical energy. The vast majority of heterotrophs, like us, exploit this ability of plants in order to survive. We even feed our machines solar/chemical energy from plants long dead. The downside of this solution, as we are painfully learning, is the introduction of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, in particular CO2 from combustion, at rates far greater than those that the geosphere can “metabolize”. As a result, they accumulate in the atmosphere in growing amounts, reaching levels that we increasingly believe are too high for the stability of global climate. 

            Bioenergy seeks to exploit photosynthesis, as efficiently as possible, to increase total primary power supply. Its great advantage is that, in principle, it can lead to a net atmospheric carbon balance that is zero or even slightly negative. The downsides are that “in principle” is not always “in practice”, and that we may end up using land and water in undesirable and unsustainable ways in order to produce the vast amounts of bioenergy required to keep our industrial civilization running.

             There is no perfect solution. But, there are better and worse solutions. In order to identify and develop these better solutions, we need to involve the best brains we can muster in their search. That is, we need to invest in R&D and engineering, and we need to attract top talents to work in the field of bioenergy. It is an exciting inter and multi-disciplinary field: from molecular biology to chemical engineering, from agronomy to environmental science, from sustainability studies to economics, and much more. It is true that the challenge does not stop at the laboratories and pilot plants. It involves political, regulatory, military, trade, and financial aspects, that take us far away from photosynthesis, but that inseparable concerns whenever energy is discussed.

              Brazil is a world leader in bioenergy. We all know that. With abundant land, water, sun, and the wonderful sugarcane, it has a privileged situation as a producer of bioenergy. But this leadership may be easily lost if the country does not invest heavily in R&D and engineering, to face the enormous technical challenges of increasing the scale of production, at the same time minimizing the environmental and social impacts of bioenergy.          

            The BBEST conference tries to strike a balance among all these multiple facets of the bioenergy challenge. First and foremost, however, its aim is to give bioenergy visibility among young researchers and students, let them know how important an issue it is and how fascinating the career opportunities are that it offers. Twenty-one countries are represented, some of the best researchers in the field are getting together for a few days to present their results, network with their colleagues, and, we hope, motivate young people. The Organizers are very grateful to their colleagues, from the world over and from Brazil, who are joining us in Campos do Jordão for the BBEST Conference.

            As Co-Chairman, it is my pleasure to thank the members of our International Advisory, Program, and Local Committees whose suggestions and dedication made possible the beautiful program that this Conference has put together. Funding from FAPESP, CNPq, CAPES, and many company sponsors made it possible to hold the meeting. The Secretariat, Profs. Gláucia Souza and Luis Cortez, and the Treasurer, Prof. Heitor Cantarella did a superb job of handling all the details. Prof. Hernan Chaimovich, our Co-Chairman, was always there when needed. The Brazilian Society of Biology and Biochemistry (SBBq) helped us all along, together with the staff of FAPESP. Prof. Brito Cruz, from the very first moment, when BBEST was nothing more than an interrogation mark, gave his full support to the Organizers and, along the way, very sound advice. On a personal note, I would like to thank my company, CEITEC SA Semiconductors, for having allowed me to dedicate a small fraction of my time to BBEST.

            With my best wishes to all of you, I bid you welcome to Brazil and to the First Brazilian BioEnergy Science and Technology Conference.
             Prof. (Emeritus) Cylon Gonçalves da Silva   

[1] Survey of World Energy Resources 2007 do World Energy Council for identified resources followed by a simple calculation.