SAO PAULO, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Ethanol producers in Brazil are evaluating the adoption of a plant concept that uses cane, and alternatively corn, to produce the biofuel, a move that would allow them to extend operations beyond the current cane harvest period.
Almost all ethanol makers in Brazil's center-south cane belt produce the fuel between April and mid-December, when the crop is processed. The plants normally remain idled for almost three months every year, a period companies use for maintenance.
But there are six plants in Brazil currently operating during most of the year, using corn as an alternative raw material when the cane harvest is over and taking only short breaks for maintenance.
"We stopped for only 15 days last year," said Vital Silva Nogueira, a manager at the so-called 'flex mill' unit at Usimat, located in Mato Grosso, in the heart of Brazil's grain belt.
Usimat was the first 'flex mill' to operate in Brazil, back in 2012. Besides the six plants that produce ethanol using both cane and corn, there are two plants producing the biofuel using exclusively corn.
Roberto Hollanda Filho, head of Biosul, an association of mills in Mato Grosso do Sul, believes the concept of plants using the two raw materials is totally feasible, specially in states with ample corn supplies such as his.
But he says most companies in the sector currently lack funding for investments, and would need to have a clearer outlook for future ethanol demand in Brazil to decide whether to raise capital to upgrade the plants.
Brazil's ethanol demand has been volatile in recent years, depending on the price of gasoline, which competes with the biofuel for drivers' preference at the pump.
Brazilian ethanol producers are pressing the government to implement as soon as possible a program to boost ethanol and biodiesel demand, called RenovaBio.
The plan would set mandates for fuel distributors, with gradually larger targets for biofuels over the years, and it is seen as a lifeline for local producers. (Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira Editing by Marguerita Choy)