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Sugarcane ethanol has been produced in Brazil since the early 20th century, but production increased in the mid-1970s aiming at substituting 20% of the gasoline. Despite an increase in the 2000s production has been stable since 2008. This paper presents a review of the main developments achieved and future challenges. The sector has had positive economic and environmental results through technological development, as a result of research and development by private companies and strong public support. Sugarcane yield has steadily increased and positively impacted production costs, primarily due to better agronomic practices and breeding programs. Owing to environmental and economic reasons, there are on-going programs to phase out burning, with the gradual replacement of manual harvest with burning by unburnt mechanised harvest. Important agronomic impacts are expected, caused by the large amount of straw left on the soil surface, which also represents a significant bioenergy potential. The sugarcane industry in Brazil has taken advantage of the combined production of sugar and ethanol, and, recently, many mills have enlarged their revenues with surplus electricity. The current efforts for diversification aim at ethanol production through hydrolysis of sugarcane residues and the development of chemical routes. From an environmental point of view, impacts related to land use change are expected on greenhouse emissions, water resources, and biodiversity. Ethanol production is likely to expand in Brazil due to the potential size of the domestic market and to the opportunities for exporting, but this will occur in a context of different and new challenges. WIREs Energy Environ 2014, 3:70–92. doi: 10.1002/wene.87

The author has declared no conflicts of interest in relation to this article.

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