Potential for conversion to biorefineries in SA

10th September 2010 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

South Africa has the potential to convert its carbon-based existing industrial refineries into biorefiner- ies, which will benefit the country socially, economically and environmentally.

Biorefineries are the future green chemis- try refineries, where heat and biofuels are only part of the portfolio of products made from woody biomass. South Africa’s several established industries could promote [the possibility of] the conversion from the use of coal to the use of biomass (wood chips or bio-oil from pyrolysis units) to produce syngas, biofuels and electricity, says University of Stellenbosch professor Emile van Zyl.

For example, the pulp and paper players, such as Mondi and Sappi, can follow the concept that Sweden established, in 2003, when paper mill Domsjö Faberik, in Örnsköldsvik, demonstrated that a biorefinery could operate on a commercial scale without adversely affecting the environment around it, he says.

It is the first biorefinery that completely converts woody materials into products with no pollutants entering the nearby river, developing a sustainable and envi- ronment-friendly future.

The mill was transferred to the Örnsköldsvik municipality in 2003, and significant investments were made to dev- elop the run-down unprofitable paper entity into a profitable biorefinery.

Van Zyl, who was awarded the senior chair of energy research in biofuels by the South African National Energy Research Institute, says that, if the sugar industry converts to a biorefinery, this will enable sugar mills not only to do the first-round crystallisation for the sugar industry, but also to use the remaining sugars for ethanol production and the hydrolysis of sugars in bagasse for ethanol production.

The remaining lignin can be burned for energy generation to run the mill and unused biological materials and runoff water can be used for biogas production.

Van Zyl believes that there are three main environmental benefits to changing to biorefineries. There will be a renewable source of feedstock, since the refinery will rely on the growth of new crops and trees. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the conversion of plant material into different products will be recaptured in new plant material, limiting CO2 emissions and miti- gating climate change. Biorefineries will be an alternative source for producing fine chemicals, fuels and heat in the event of fossil fuels running out.

Further, biorefineries, he says, can bring economic benefits in the form of an improved balance of trade and energy independence, better control of product properties and new product and market opportunities. Social benefits will include rural economic diversification and growth, as well as improvements in health and the quality of life for communities.

“Although South Africa will see the bene- fits, it is more a matter of how the country manages and overcomes the challenges to a cleaner, greener and more sustainable future,” he says.

A significant challenge for South Africa in converting to biorefineries is the lower cost of fossil-based energy and the fact that the markets are currently dominated by established fossil fuel industries.

Other challenges include feedstock avail- ability and the initial start-up costs, sourcing large quantities of plant materials and sourcing capital for first- and second-generation bioenergy systems, says Van Zyl.

There are also technology challenges, such as limited short-term pilot demonstrations, as well as funding availability for research and development to improve performance and efficiency.

“The challenges ahead are just too large for the industry to make a transition on its own while simultaneously trying to stay afloat. However, many of these challenges could also stimulate new industrial growth by bringing biobased industries on line,” says Van Zyl.

“If the South African government approaches this concept with the same commitment as Sweden, we will be able to showcase Africa’s potential. Government should show transparent commitment, offering incentives to level the playing field for biobased industries to enter the mainstream, and introduce framework and policies within which all of this can happen,” he adds.
Although there appears to be an absence of studies or public efforts in South Africa, many industries are busy with their own in-house feasibility studies, and the results of such studies should be combined to develop biorefineries to further develop South Africa’s potential, Van Zyl believes.

Although new skills would need to be developed, he concludes that it is not the lack of skills that is restricting the country’s growth, but a lack of political will and effort.