Brazil, faced with tightening supplies of its sugarcane-based ethanol as growers there find better profits in sugar, says it is considering importing U.S., corn-based ethanol. That news is helping fuel the idea that the U.S. ethanol industry, which has been prone to booms and busts but has plenty of incentives and a mandate from the government to increase production, could serve more than just the domestic market. There's even talk that China could be a potential customer as it rapidly increases its use of the alternative fuel.

Talk of significant ethanol exports was non-existent until sugar prices started rising significantly about six months ago. A drought-stricken sugarcane crop in India, along with crop problems in Brazil, have sent prices soaring, with raw sugar futures on ICE Futures trading near three-decade highs in recent months.

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As a result, mills are finding sugar production more profitable than ethanol. The ethanol shortfall is driving up the costs of the renewable fuel, to the point that Brazilian motorists are finding it more economical to fill up with regular gasoline rather than ethanol.

Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, says current capacity is around 12 million gallons. However, Hartwig and others say that capacity could be quickly increased should a viable export market emerge, as many of the plants built during the ethanol boom of 2006 and shuttered during the subsequent bust are brought back online.