by Wiida Fourie-Basson

Market entry: biofuels

Biotechnologies are ready for take-off on a commercial scale

The US is ready to introduce biofuels into the commercial market
green car.jpg

Dr James McMillian from the United States National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced at the 20th International Symposium on Alcohol Fuels (ISAF) during his plenary address that cellulosic ethanol conversion technology is now ready for deployment, since the process has been substantially advanced and derisked in the last five to 10 years of focused research and development.

NREL has developed a conceptual design for a 2 000 tonne per day plant to produce ethanol at the cost-competitive price of $2.15 (about R20) per gallon.

“Bioenergy supports US national priorities to dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce carbon emissions, and to establish an advanced biofuel industry to promote the use of diverse domestic and sustainable energy resources. Another important policy driver is the renewable fuels standards, which was augmented in 2007 to call for the production of 136 billion litres of biofuels by 2022,” he explained.

NREL estimated that there is currently sufficient biomass available to produce 40 to 56 billion litres of biofuel per year without impacting on food production.

"We are at the point of starting to produce significant volumes of biofuels,” he said. 

The US is also looking at replacing the whole ‘barrel of oil’ – diesel, heavy fuel oils, jet fuel – with the development of so-called third-generation biofuel technologies such as hydrocarbons.


First-generation biofuel technology key to developing world’s energy crisis

Professor Brito Cruz, scientific director at the São Paulo Research Foundation, said the demand for energy in developing countries such as Africa and Latin America has already reached the crossover point: “Most of the available land in the world is in Africa and South America. This is meaningful and relevant because we know that the use of energy in those countries will increase faster than in other regions of the world. 

“We are very lucky that we have enough land in those countries to produce biofuels, and alleviate the world’s emission levels,” he said.

It would make the most sense for these countries to embrace first-generation biofuel production from sugar cane: “First-generation ethanol production from sugar cane is an established technology; it is more efficient, less costly and does not require rocket science to produce. We can do it with normal technology and no stringent requirements.”

With South Africa being one of the major sugar cane producers in Africa, followed short on the heels by Mozambique, there is nothing to stop the large-scale production of biofuels in Africa, Prof. Cruz argued.

Referring to the Brazilian model, he said 47% of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources, and 18% of that energy comes from sugar cane.

“This is a remarkable percentage if you take into account that the average for the world is 13% and for OECD countries (countries with membership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) only 7.2%. Sugar cane is a wonderful renewable energy source. You plant it and nine months later you harvest and use it. It places Brazil in a very comfortable situation when it comes to energy production. We are independent and do not have major problems with greenhouse gas emissions.”

Brazil currently produces 30 billion litres of biofuel, distributed to 33 000 petrol and ethanol filling stations across the country. Add to that the fact that 95% of all new cars sold are flex-fuel vehicles, and it seems petrol is becoming the alternative choice and ethanol the main fuel, Prof. Cruz added. 


Biofuels for sustainable development

According to conference organiser Prof. Emile van Zyl, the theme for this year’s conference, ‘Alcohol fuels enabling sustainable future development’, was carefully chosen: “We don’t only want to talk about how and whether alcohol fuels can replace fossil liquid fuels. We wanted to start a discussion on how biofuels can benefit society, particularly in the developing world.”

Prof. Van Zyl heads the Department of Microbiology at Stellenbosch University, where he holds the senior chair of Energy Research in Biofuels, funded by the department of science and technology. 

He said this year’s ISAF conference highlighted the potential role of alcohol fuels as “the catalyst that can support social and economic development by being graciously integrated with agriculture and enabling food security”.

The conference came to an end on Wednesday (27 March), with plenary addresses by Maurice Radebe, Sasol group executive: corporate affairs; and Prof. David Chiaramonti from the University of Florence, reporting on the world’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant being built in Crescentino, Italy.


Originally issued by Wiida Fourie-Basson:, 021 808 2684

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