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Embrapa, Acelen Renewables begin macauba domestication for renewable diesel, SAF in Brazil

Image: Acelen Renewables

A technical meeting involving scientific leaders from Acelen Renewables, Embrapii and Embrapa initiated a technological development project for the macauba palm species to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), renewable diesel, thermal energy and other value-added coproducts, Acelen Renewables announced July 2.

 

The purpose of the open innovation partnership is to contribute to the domestication of macauba, the subsequent implementation of commercial plantations, and the optimal use of its fruits (shell, pulp, endocarp and kernel) through more effective processes for extracting high-quality oils and generating bioproducts.

 

The project, to last five years, is supported by two technical cooperation agreements between Acelen Renewables and Embrapa Agroenergia, with investments totaling 13.7 million Brazilian reals (USD$2.5 million), financially backed by Embrapii and the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES).

 

It also involves the scientific contribution of four other research centers: Embrapa Algodão, Embrapa Florestas, Embrapa Meio Norte and Embrapa Recursos Genéticos e Biotecnologia.

 

Acelen Renewables’ enterprise is designed to support the energy transition process, providing large-scale renewable fuels, with clear environmental and social guidelines.

 

It aims to create decarbonized production systems in semi-arid areas, providing new economic opportunities for impoverished communities, and reusing industrial effluents.

 

The project is expected to create 90,000 direct and indirect jobs and generate 7.4 billion Brazilian reals (USD$1.35 billion) in annual income for the involved populations.

 

According to Alexandre Alonso, head of Embrapa Agroenergia, Acelen Renewables’ initiative is extremely important as the demand for advanced biofuels will grow exponentially in the coming years with increasing pressures for decarbonization.

 

“The country has the opportunity to become a global producer and supplier of SAF and green diesel (HVO),” Alonso said. “For this, investments in R&D are necessary, both in raw materials (such as macauba) and in new bioprocesses, as well as modeling.”

 

Victor Barra, the agribusiness director at Acelen Renewables, said this macauba domestication project could transform Acelen Renewables—which aims to become “the largest and most competitive producer of renewable fuels in an integrated model from macauba seed to fuel”—into the Brazilian leader in the global energy-transition market.

 

Acelen Renewables intends to develop the project in semi-arid areas and enable an extremely efficient agricultural cultivation in oil production to avoid taking food-production areas.

 

Barra emphasized that the agro-industrial process must be highly competitive, in terms of both costs and carbon footprint.

 

The choice of macauba, a plant with high energy density and great capacity for carbon sequestration, aligns with this perspective, according to Acelen Renewables.

 

It is estimated that 60 million tons of CO2 will be removed from the atmosphere annually, and emissions of the gas will be reduced by 80 percent, besides recovering degraded areas.

 

Barra therefore insists that the crucial issue for the project’s success is to obtain production systems that result in high oil yields per hectare and effective industrial processes for oil extraction.

 

“What we observe in nature is that the plant has a floral primordium for each leaf it emits, and, on average, it produces 15 leaves per year,” Barra said. “At least 12 of them should turn into fruit bunches to be harvested. But normally, we see palms with only three or four bunches. We need to understand the physiology of macauba very well to unlock these barriers and enable the high fruit production and consequently the oil per hectare that the project requires.”

 

Despite this, he said he believes that domesticating the plant is not the project’s biggest challenge.

 

“Solving the plant’s agronomic problems, for us, is just a matter of time given the competence already demonstrated by public agricultural research, of which Embrapa is one of the exponents, coupled with the expertise of Acelen Renewables’ agro team,” he affirmed.

 

For him, the greatest challenge will be processing the fruit for oil extraction and fully utilizing the remaining biomass so that no waste is generated, but rather value is added.

 

This is essential for the entire production chain to obtain the necessary certifications for the external market and make the products highly competitive.

 

Thus, in his opinion, the project’s scope transcends local expectations and benefits.

 

“The domestication of macauba is not a project of a company, or even a country, but a project for the world,” he said.

 

Challenges 

Researcher Simone Favaro from Embrapa Agroenergia, who will coordinate this project, notes that three species of macauba palm naturally occur in Brazil: Acrocomia aculeata, predominant in the central Brazilian savannas; Acrocomia intumescens, found in areas of the Northeast; and Acrocomia totai, present in areas of Parana, Sao Paulo, Mato Grosso do Sul and the Pantanal.

 

The project will focus on the first two species, already adapted to the areas of interest for Acelen Renewables, which operates between Bahia and northern Minas Gerais.

 

Macauba has been the subject of studies for some time by Embrapa and other public research organizations, such as the Federal University of Vicosa, and some important advances have already been achieved.

 

According to the researcher, a significant barrier when considering commercial plantations was the production of seedlings, as the natural germination rate of the seeds was very low: only 5 percent of the seeds.

 

“A protocol from UFV solved this, and today it is possible to germinate up to 95 percent of the seeds,” Favaro said.

 

She also cited advances such as the development and approval of the Agricultural Zoning of Climate Risk (ZARC) for the crop, which indicates areas with lower climatological risk for exploiting macauba in a rainfed system and provides access to Proagro and rural insurance subsidies, providing greater business security.

 

There are also evaluations of plant diversity in native populations for the implementation of an active germplasm bank, with over 100 different accesses to enable genetic improvement programs, and even the development of a computer tool—MacView—for identifying, counting and georeferencing the best native macauba plants.

 

But Favaro warned that there are other major challenges.

 

She pointed out that the second significant barrier to implementing commercial plantations is the availability of homogeneous high-yielding materials obtained through conventional genetic improvement, as cross-pollination between flowers of the same palm can generate significant plant variability in fruit productivity—with some yielding less than desired.

 

Therefore, she expressed the ambition to develop protocols in the future to allow obtaining clones of the best palms to ensure that plantations consist only of high-yielding plants, similar to what is happening with the oil palm.

 

In both cases, it will be necessary to develop and adjust analytical tools and use them in both native forests and existing commercial plantations to select high-yielding plants that will be parents for improved plants.

 

Once high-yielding plants are obtained, economically viable plantations will require the delineation of production systems for macauba, defining plant spacing, fertilization, water management and other cultural practices.

 

As Acelen is interested in using degraded semi-arid areas, the project also intends to investigate the possibility of implementing macauba crop and macauba livestock integration systems.

 

Favaro also noted that fruits collected directly from the ground, when left on the soil for a long time before being picked up, tend to undergo a fermentation and oxidation process of the pulp and kernel, which impairs oil quality.

 

The project should invest in harvest and post-harvest logistics to prevent this damage.

 

According to her, the technological development of the project’s industrial segment also presents significant challenges, the most determining being the creation of more innovative processes for pulp and kernel oil extraction, aiming to increase oil-extraction rates and quality.

 

“But oil represents only 10 percent to 20 percent of what macauba offers us,” she pointed out. “The remaining 80 percent can be numerous high value-added coproducts, such as pulp and kernel cakes for food products and endocarp for energy generation and biochar. Pulp and kernel oils, with distinct properties, in addition to fuels, can have numerous applications in the food segment, both as cooking oil and in manufacturing chocolate, ice cream, fillings and margarines.”

 

In the renewable-chemical market, they can be used in the production of shampoos, moisturizers, soaps and makeup. They can also be used in the production of paints, varnishes and lubricants.

 

Pulp and kernel can still be used in animal feed and flours for human food.

 

The shell can generate thermal energy, the endocarp (kernel) can be turned into activated charcoal for filters and biochar (used in soil improvement and carbon capture), and industrial effluents can produce biogas and fertilizers.

 

The project will also conduct cross-sectional studies such as the economic feasibility of macauba exploitation, carbon inventories in forests and plantations, and oilseed-lifecycle analyses.

 

“There is a long road ahead,” Favaro signaled. “The agro-industrial development of macauba is just beginning.”

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