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The great South African biofuel delusion January 10, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, News, South Africa, Sustainable Living.

Biofuels (bio-ethanol, made from crops such as maize and sugar cane and biodiesel, made from oil seed crops like sunflowers) have been getting increasing amounts of news coverage in recent years. These alternatives to conventional petrol and diesel are being touted as green solutions to many of our environmental problems.

And it’s not just environmental activists who are enamoured, growing numbers of celebrities like Daryl Hannah and Willie Nelson are enthusiastic pundits, too.

A careful and honest look at the realities of large-scale biofuel production will, however, make it quite obvious that they are not the answer to our problems.

The South African cabinet has just approved a draft biofuel strategy which opens the way for the establishment of a multi-billion rand biofuel industry in the country. The benefits: 55 000 new jobs and a reduction in the country’s dependence on imported oil and its carbon emissions.

According to a report by Melanie Gosling in yesterday’s Cape Times (which you won’t be able to read on-line unless you are a subscriber, @#&*%##@!) :

The strategy is also likely to see under-used land in the economically depressed former homelands being developed to grow crops for the biofuel industry…

The strategy proposes that there be a mandatory inclusion of 4.5% of biofuels in road transport fuel by 2013. This will mean an additional 1.3 million hectares of land will be needed to produce grain [700 000 hectares] and oilseeds [600 00 hectares] to supply the biofuel industry.

Sounds good at a first glance, right? Ja, but has anybody done the maths on this proposal? I suspect they have, but are too greedy to tell us (yes, I did say multi-billion rand industry earlier).

Even a back of the envelope calculation reveals the lunacy of believing that biofuels are the answer to our problems:

The “additional 1.3 million hectares of land” required to produce enough biofuels to make up a mere 4.5% of the country’s transport fuel would mean a doubling (approximately) of the total area currently under permanent cultivation in South Africa, a water-poor country which already uses almost half of its water for agriculture.

South Africa has some 15 million hectares of arable land (about 12.1% of its total area). Even if all of this arable land were to be used for biofuel production, it would still only generate just over half of the transport fuel that we consume (oh, and yes, we’d have to import all of our food).

I’m not, of course, the first person to be critical of mass-produced biofuels (read contributions by George Monbiot and David Pimentel). Biodiesel produced from recycled vegetable oil is a viable option, and I’m still keen to brew it for my own use, but it will only provide the proverbial drop in the ocean.

The bottom line is that we, as a society, as a civilisation, are oil addicts in a state of utter denial. What is required is that we ween ourselves off the stuff as quickly and as completely as possible, or we’ll soon find ourselves down Shit Street in a pedalo (to paraphrase James Howard Kunstler).



1. Anonymous - January 10, 2007

Can you say ALGEA

2. Andreas - January 11, 2007

Sure I can, but I’d rather say “algae”. Good point, though, thanks! Algae do look like a potential winner, although I guess the jury is still out.

Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure the people who wrote the South African draft biofuel strategy can say either “algea” or “algae”.

According to Wikipedia:
“There is ongoing research into finding more suitable crops and improving oil yield. Using the current yields, vast amounts of land and fresh water would be needed to produce enough oil to completely replace fossil fuel usage. It would require twice the land area of the US to be devoted to soybean production, or two-thirds to be devoted to rapeseed production, to meet current US heating and transportation needs.”

“The highest yield feedstock for biodiesel is algae, which can produce 250 times the amount of oil per acre as soybeans.”

“From 1978 to 1996, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory experimented with using algae as a biodiesel source in the “Aquatic Species Program”. A recent paper from Michael Briggs, at the UNH Biodiesel Group, offers estimates for the realistic replacement of all vehicular fuel with biodiesel by utilizing algae that have a natural oil content greater than 50%, which Briggs suggests can be grown on algae ponds at wastewater treatment plants. This oil-rich algae can then be extracted from the system and processed into biodiesel, with the dried remainder further reprocessed to create ethanol.”

“The production of algae to harvest oil for biodiesel has not yet been undertaken on a commercial scale, but feasibility studies have been conducted to arrive at the above yield estimate. In addition to its projected high yield, algaculture — unlike crop-based biofuels — does not entail a decrease in food production, since it requires neither farmland nor fresh water.”

“On May 11, 2006 the Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation in Marlborough, New Zealand announced that it had produced its first sample of bio-diesel fuel made from algae found in sewage ponds. Unlike previous attempts, the algae was naturally grown in pond discharge from the Marlborough District Council’s sewage treatment works. In November 2006, a commercial-scale project was announced in South Africa. Using American-made, closed bioreactors, it is expected to produce 900 millions gallons a year (58 thousand barrels a day) of biodiesel within a couple of years.”

Here’s a very interesting links regarding biodiesel production from algae in South Africa:

3. Bob - January 15, 2007

Hi there,

Biodiesel production is a pretty straightforward technology that has been around for a number of years. In South Africa, numerous plants have been set up (at least 2 are running now for sure – at a working profit). These plants can run on a variety of oils interchangeably. The new element to the equation is oil-from-algae.

Many small scale algae rigs have been constructed and proven -biodiesel CAN be made from algae, with gigantic yield, at very low cost, even when considering a pond-type “alpha” 2D layout. There is a compact 3D closed-loop “beta” rig in South Africa at the moment, from which a small quantity of algae oil has been produced. From that, biodiesel has been produced using a conventional methenol-catalyst reaction.

The problem with algae oil has always been the scaling up of the technology to full production. The main barriers being the cost of the plant, durability of plant and being forced to develop a manufacturing process as you go along – there are many variables that need to be carefully controlled and tweaked. So while it is theoretically possible, the reality is a very much evolution-of-design approach attempting to achieve a simple, repeatable, reliable, low maintenance design.

Another problem is siting the algae plant near a suitable effluent plant (waste treatment or power station), which produces either sewage or gasses (COx, NOx) used to fuel the algae production. There are various problems with waste-liquid effluent technology. Gas effluent is MUCH easier to adapt to algae production. With a reliable road network, the actual biodiesel reactor plants do not necessarily need to be that close to a power station and can be sited where the diesel will be sold.

Oil-from-algae researchers are playing down the technology (“available in a few years”, “no full scale plant in the foreseeable future”). However, the first scale-up plant (post-pilot plant) will take place in South Africa. Negotiations are currently underway with a power station and there may be a post-pilot plant running in late 2007, early 2008. And no, I’m not going to quote my source.

South Africa is the perfect location for algae production to succeed.
Climate, excellent transport infrastructure, numerous coal-fired power stations and a relatively cheap labour force. Rebates have been offered to supply of biodiesel to state-run enterprises (forestry, etc).

Some of the biodiesel investment opportunities are staged using a franchise model which has various benefits. It allows the raising of the required capital and the piece-meal plant approach allows convenient R&D and phasing in of new technology (amongst other benefits like BEE, empowering joe public, instead of a cartel model).

There is no question that a “Generation 1” scale up algae plant will be a modular, under-efficient affair that produces algae with (probably) quite a bit of manual effort (late 2007). Probably by Generation 3 (2010) will be a mature and fairly reliable technology.

Imagine 100% biodisel at (pump price) 60-70% of the petroleum product (by then). This is what actually seems to be possible.

I admit that at some point market saturation will be reached for plant-based-biodiesel production (I would guess that as early as 2010 LOCAL plant oil prices will skyrocket due to biodiesel demand), but all indications are that shipping in of palm, soya or other oil from outside the country is perfectly feasible. South Africa will be at the fore-front of biodiesel production by 2010 (exceeding America’s 2007 production by 4 times). Some trends also seem to indicate that by 2010, America will be the largest consumer of biodiesel, with uncertain production capacity by then. So even if a glut exists here (unlikely), a great deal of our biodiesel will be headed to the ‘states and perhaps even china.

Sasol were whining in January along the lines of “we won’t set up a plant unless the government heavily subsidises it”. Whiney whiney whiney. Meanwhile, they’ve already signed up a BEE partnership (December 2006) with Siyanda Biodiesel to produce 100 000 tons a year of biodiesel….. So they’re blowing the horn that ‘it can’t be done without subsidy’. Meanwhile, they are forging ahead with clear intent of crushing future competition. All sorts of politics are on the go with biodiesel in South Africa at the moment and the govenrment wants a piece of the pie – government subsidy becomes PROFIT if the oil price goes above a certain level. Read the proposed policy.

My thoughts are that for the biodiesel industry to be sustainable, the algae technology had BETTER catch up, otherwise it will actually go bust by 2013. Agreed: government is a bit deluded with the amount of land required in their vesion of biodiesel production.

My thought is that Biodiesel will heavily influence the way that South Africa farms in future. Perhaps soya crops and oil-fruit-bearing trees will become the future resource for generations to come. Will (indirect) state regulated fuel agriculture be such a bad thing?

Short of viewing the running algae pilot plant I’m confident it is the future multi-billion industry that is currently touted.

To the original author: Posting facts and figures from e-media that joe-public cannot access is misleading and doesn’t give the average reader the opportunity to read the original source material.

Your hypocrytical “careful and honest look” at the industry is fairly poorly researched, narrow minded and somewhat misleading. Alternative fuels such as hydrogen are currently horribly eco-unfriendly (due to the power stations used to make the hydrogen in the first place). Ditto electric cars. Diesel as a technology is currently more efficient that petrol or coal fired steam has ever been (hence the plethora of efficient 2 stroke diesel ships, locos etc).

A note on running on biodiesel:

Biodiesel is clean, efficient and the original fuel intended for use in diesel engines way back when in the early 1900’s. No soot. Sulphur free. Now sounding like a bad caltex ad: It cleans and lubricates your diesel engine, increasing it’s life. It isn’t hard to find endurance tests online which demonstrate this. Diesel forsaw in even in his day the young cartel monster that petroleum had become and his engine product was intended to be run cheaply on veg derived diesel. The only change to a post-95 diesel engine is flushing the fuel tank and changing the oil filter. True, a bit underpowered, but it will be cheaper in the long run.

Biodiesel has become inevitable.

South Africa

4. Andreas - January 15, 2007

Thanks Bob, very enlightening!

5. Douglas Blackwell - January 8, 2010

Quality Information Thanks!

I have bookmarked your site, if you get a chance please take a look at our site http://www.bio-partners.co.uk there is some more information you may find useful in our members area!

Warm Regards,


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