New biofuel project launched

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.

Money

"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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