Biofuels: The Debate Continues

Henry Ford's first car ran on alcohol, a form of biofuel. That was a century ago, and, with the discovery of fossil fuels, the use of biofuels diminished significantly.

Today, however, as the world faces unstable oil prices and an increasingly urgent energy crisis, in tandem with environmental concerns such as global warming and climate changes, biofuels are making a comeback.

However, this comeback is not without controversy.

Both the World Bank and the UN have expressed concern about the impact of biofuels on world food prices, while Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of Britain, put the issue on the agenda at the G8 summit of 2007, and voiced concerns over deforestation and loss of habitats caused by biofuels production.

His concerns seem to be well-founded as a study conducted by the University of Minnesota in the US this year revealed: “...converting rainforests, peat lands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food-based biofuels in Brazil, southeast Asia, and the US creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions these biofuels provide by displacing fossil fuels.”

While the international debate continues to unfold, food prices continue to rise, as does biofuels production. For example, in the US the number of ethanol factories has almost tripled from 50 in the year 2000 to about 140 in the year 2008. A further 60 or so are under construction, and many more are planned.

Today, the most common first generation biofuel is ethanol, which can, for example, be used in petrol engines as a replacement for gasoline. However, to replace the current US petroleum use, one would require about 75% of all cultivated land on the planet.

For a developing country such as South Africa, resurgence to biofuels has a potential role to play in many facets other than being an alternative source of energy. These facets include poverty alleviation through job creation, economic upliftment and empowerment of rural communities, and transformation between the first and second economies. In addition, South Africa’s draft biofuels industrial strategy further paves way for the biofuels not to have a negative effect on food security, as it advocates against the use of essential food crops and productive food-land for use in the production of biofuels.

What could be biofuels saving grace is the development of second generation and third generation biofuels, which use non-food products. Second generation biofuels comprise the stalks of wheat, waste biomass and biomass crops, while algae fuel is a third generation biofuels.

In essence second generation biofuels could be more sustainable and less energy-sapping than first generation biofuels.

Lignocellulose degradation is also favoured as a new way towards generation of biofuels.

Dr. Sandile Ncanana, of PlantBio Trust is also of the view that: “The use of lignocellullose as a feedstock for bioethanol, for instance, is gaining momentum in many countries - cellulosic ethanol factories in particular are being developed. However, this technology relies heavily on the willingness of various stakeholders to invest significantly in research and development especially in the fields of bioprospecting and protein engineering. These are research fields with potential to yield novel microbes or enzymes that could convert cellulose to fermentable sugars or direct to ethanol”.

PlantBio Trust, as an innovation centre for plant biotechnology, has taken the lead in identifying, sourcing and subsequently funding biofuels projects. Sweet stem sorghum has been particularly identified by PlantBio as one of the crops that needs to be characterised to ascertain its suitability as a feedstock for biofuels production in South Africa. The selection of crops for biofuels at PlantBio is largely based on 2 main factors, namely, high sugar content, and ability of a crop to grow in marginal land with low input (energy) requirement, all these being in line with our national biofuels strategy which excludes the use of essential food crops.

Benefits and pitfalls of biofuels will be highlighted at Bio2Biz SA 2008 conference, which takes place alongside INSITE 2008, the International Science, Innovation and Technology Exhibition, at the Sandton Convention Centre from 15 – 17 September 2008.

“Bio2Biz aims to expose business and industry to international biotechnology trends and developments, while ensuring the country is in line with the international world in terms of the developments in biotechnology. Ultimately it affords both industry and business with the opportunity to work together and utilise this technology to the country’s best advantage,” explains CEO of BioPAD, Dr Joe Molete.

 

August 2008