Fuel for thought

Brazil has been hitting recent international headlines more for sport than science. Imperial magazine straightens out the balance by catching up with globe-trotting bioenergy research associate Alexandre Strapasson.

Brazil is a leader in biofuels, particularly  for its sugarcane-based ethanol programme.
Brazil is a leader in biofuels, particularly for its sugarcane-based ethanol programme.

In 2010 I moved to London from Brazil to carry out research at Imperial into bioenergy and the behaviour of complex systems. My wife Manoela is also studying in London, and even our ginger cat Mimo came with us across the Atlantic. I am based at the College’s Centre for Environmental Policy, and affiliated to the Energy Futures Lab, and the Grantham Institute for Climate Change. The cross disciplinary culture at Imperial helps things connect in surprising ways, which appeals to my approach to work.

I was born during the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, in the city of Curitiba in southern Brazil. My parents are descendants of Italian immigrants, who left everything behind in search of hope in unknown rural lands. My mother has always been a dynamic person, and recently finished her secondary education more than 40 years after she left primary school, which is a great example of courage and determination for me.

My father was the only child in his family with access to higher education, as his original ambition was to become a Catholic priest. Thankfully he must have given up this idea at some point, because here I am. But his early training left him with a love for literature. Discussing books and news at home was an important part of my childhood.

I grew up with a passion for science, as well as a keen interest in debating international and local issues. I have ended up combining these approaches by working at the interface between science and policy. Influencing policy is the best way to provide more democratic access to energy sources, income, and environmental services.

Brazil is a leader in biofuels, particularly for its sugarcane-based ethanol programme. I first got interested in bioenergy because it represents so much more than an energy resource: it is a significant driver of rural development in developing countries, and a key route for reducing carbon emissions worldwide. While working in Brazil I became especially interested in collaborations between South America and parts of Africa and Asia, rather than the more common partnerships that cross the North-South divide.

I like the idea of living as a nomad, but please do not ask our cat about that, because he hates travelling! I retain very strong connections with the country where I was born, but I need to work in different cultures to develop a proper international perspective. As we all know, issues like land use, energy and food security transcend country borders.

After training as an agricultural engineer in Brazil, I worked and undertook additional studies in France and Japan. Before moving to London I worked for the Brazilian Government on the bioenergy agenda for the Ministry of Agriculture, and on climate change for the Ministry of the Environment.

Although I enjoyed being involved directly in climate change negotiations and Bioenergy policy making, I also missed the science vibe that comes from being based at a university. In the first instance I tried to compensate for this by taking undergraduate evening classes in physics as a hobby, but eventually realised I needed to resume my academic journey, and made the decision to move Imperial for a PhD.

Imperial’s support for interesting connections inspired me to set up the College’s Brazil Forum in 2011, to bring together colleagues across Imperial to work on issues related to Brazil. The Forum was born out of a wish to create opportunities to generate new and interesting collaborations, rather than any particular sense of patriotism. The list of partnerships with links to Imperial and Brazil is growing. In addition to my own area of bioenergy, collaborations include work in aeronautics, theoretical physics and public health. The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) in 2013 resulted in significant matched seed funding for up to five new collaborative research projects.

Through the support of BG Group, the College recently launched the Sustainable Gas Institute, with a particular focus on partners in Brazil, to further research into gas innovation, energy efficiency, and carbon capture and storage.

When I left Southern Brazil with a knapsack on my back in search of new opportunities and interesting thinkers all those years ago, I could never have predicted where I would end up. London is a great melting pot for bioenergy research, and continues to provide great opportunities for exploring environmental strategies and sustainable energy futures.

Photography by Robert Clarke/Institute