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Sugarcane burning is downside for ethanol

MERCED, Calif., Dec. 15 (UPI) -- Ethanol production involving burning of sugarcane fields prior to harvest produces air pollution that lessens the fuel's sustainability, U.S. researchers say.

Scientists at the University of California, Merced, focused their study on Brazil, the world's top producer of sugarcane ethanol and a possible source for U.S. imports of the alternative fuel.

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"There is a big strategic decision our country and others are making, in whether to develop a domestic biofuels industry or import relatively inexpensive biofuels from developing countries," Professor Elliott Campbell said. "Our study shows that importing biofuels could result in human health and environmental problems in the regions where they are cultivated."

Even though some world governments encourage farmers to reduce field burning, more than half of sugarcane croplands in Brazil are burned to remove sharp leaves and facilitate the harvest, the researchers said.

That creates air quality issues that can offset the benefits of ethanol over petroleum fuels, which emit more greenhouse gases during their use, Campbell said.

"Unlike petroleum production, the potential to produce biofuels is relatively evenly distributed across many countries, and this is a big plus from an energy security perspective," Campbell said. "However, agriculture practices in some regions result in biofuels that lead to even more intense air pollution than petroleum."

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