New biofuel project launched

2010-07-08 21:35

Cape Town - A company aims to bring cleaner biofuels to SA.

Stellenbosch Biomass Technologies (SBMT) in conjunction with Stellenbosch University will produce and distribute second generation cellulosic ethanol (a biofuel produced from wood, grasses, or the non-edible parts of plants) in SA and is hoping that it will be commercially viable within a few years.

"Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to make a much more significant impact and can contribute substantially to the transportation fuel pool.  IEA predicts that by 2050 petrol extenders, such as bioethanol, could make up 25 - 50% of the transport fuel pool," Professor Emile van Zyl of the department of Microbiology at the University of Stellenbosch told News24.

He said that the new technology provided no easy answers as to its financial viability, and that the roll-out would happen in stages. It should have to be adapted to South African conditions, demonstrated and, finally, implemented commercially.


"Adaptation of the technology to local feedstock will need R&D funding of about R20m -R30m over a period of three to four years (all of these are estimates because we are dealing with new technology and partners will determine the preferred feedstocks we will work with).  Public funding would be preferred for these ventures because capacity building and positioning are high priorities.

"Demonstrating the technology at pilot scale will require an estimated R70m - R90m. Ideally public funding should be sought for this too because economies of scale usually don't render pilot scale plants profitable, except maybe in the case of paper sludge.

"Commercial ventures with production capacity of about 40ML per year will probably cost R600m - R1bn.  As the technology matures, favourable returns on investment can be expected, considering cellulosic ethanol today costs about $80/barrel but as the technology matures, within a decade or so, the cost may drop as low as $50/barrel," said Van Zyl.

Given the size of the project and the amounts of money required to become viable, Van Zyl said that SBMT has partnered with Mascoma Corporation in the US, the company that developed the technology and the South African National Energy Research Institute.

"This initiative provided funding that enabled capacity building, HR training and set the stage from where we can move forward at a more accelerated rate," he said.

Biofuels have been criticised for causing damage to the environment when farmers clear natural vegetation to grow plants to be used for biofuel production. Biofuel production was also blamed, in part, for a spike in food prices and some claimed that farmers planted fewer food crops in favour of the more profitable biofuel crops.

"The biofuels route is a dead end. They are going to create great damage to the environment and will also produce dramatic social problems in (tropical countries where many crops for biofuels are grown). There basically isn't any way to make them viable," said Dr Andrew Boswell, a Green Party councillor in England and author of a recent study on the harmful effects of biofuels.

Commercial projects

Van Zyl, however, said that the new methodology did not threaten food crops.

"This is one of the beauties of cellulosic ethanol.  It is produced from non-food crops and can get us out of the food-versus-fuel debate. 

"If done correctly, cellulosic ethanol will not only get out of the food-versus-fuel debate, but could actually stabilise food production by providing alternative markets to the agricultural sector, thus positively impacting on a frail agricultural sector," he said.

Van Zyl doesn't foresee that the industry will take over fossil fuels in the short term.

"Location will be very much feedstock dependent.  The pilot project will in all likelihood be in the KwaZulu-Natal or Mpumalanga region in closer association with sugar cane industry (using bagasse) or paper and pulp (using paper sludge)," he said.

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  • Andrew - 2010-07-09 07:43

    I can't really understand the anti-ethanols argument. First prize is making ethanol from crops because crop production (more hectares planted) is increased. In periods of low supply you can always transfer maize destined for ethanol production to food uses but its impossible to do if the ethanol maize was not planted in the first place. Secondly significant food is still produced from the ethanol biproducts. If maize is freely made into ethanol I expect food prices to be higher in most years but the averge prices to be reduced because of a more stable supply. Food is only really valuable in shortages. Ethanol production reduces the shortages. Liberals must stop buying the oil companies propoganda.

  • NCT - 2010-07-09 07:43

    Unfortunately Prof van Zyl isn't considering the one human factor that tends to always be the one to through the spanner in the works - Greed. If the bio fuels they are trying to develop will be produced from non-edible crops, farmers are going to opt for crops that yield the most tons of this - most likely, crops that doesn't have any edible parts and from her own examples, grass seems the way they will probably go. Seeing as we would like to avoid another food crisis, farmland for current edible crops will not be made available. This leaves only the clearing of more natural vegetation - an even worse prospect, but unfortunately the one usually chosen. Unless of course, the current edible crops yield enough second generation cellulose, but somehow I doubt that.

    I hate to admit it, but Boswell is right - biofuels is a dead end.

  • Gnarled - 2010-07-09 08:59

    I am the first to admit that I dont know much about biofuels. I like the idea of i9t but I cant see how it is going to solve the problem of emissions nor as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Dont get me wrong, I am no supporter of fossil fuels either. I reckon the best option is to revert to foot traffic, encourage bicycles and the return to horses. Slow down the pace of life and progress a bit and reduce stress and everything. But then I also believe a four day working week to be sufficient. Crazy idealist.

  • Andrew - 2010-07-09 20:20

    @NCT If it was not for greed and fear then no-one would want to do anything. Greed is good, it motivates you to work. If land use for food is so important why are the road verges not planted to crops, why do we have wooled sheep, why are there timber plantations, ornamental gardens and sport fields. There is no pressing shortage of land, just the oppurtunity to use it to its full potential. Ethanol planting will reduce future food shortages not exaerbate them. Be careful that you don't swallow the oil companies half-truths. Biofeuls are not a dead end.

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