From Food To Biofuels

Yesterday, South African automobile drivers suffered the fourth consecutive increase in gasoline prices this year. The price of gasoline, which is controlled by the government and is the same at every pump across the country, increased from roughly $3.80 per gallon to about $4.18 per gallon.

As gasoline prices jumped, CHEMRAWN turned its focus to how South Africa (and the rest of the continent) might harvest some of its fuel from agricultural products.

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, South Africa was “ahead of its time” in the hunt to find a way to convert cellulosic biomass to fuels and chemicals, according to Emile van Zyl, a Stellenbosch University microbiologist and organizer of the program’s biofuels portion, which is sponsored by the South African National Energy Research Institute. After the end of apartheid, most of these programs were abandoned in favor of funding other, more pressing priorities.

The current resurgence in interest here is underscored by yesterday and today’s packed sessions on biofuels, during which scientists from South Africa as well as Brazil, the U.S., and Europe discussed locally available feedstocks as well as technologies to convert cellulosic biomass to fuels.

Despite the enthusiasm in the room, it seems unclear at the moment whether biofuel production in South Africa will take off. Today the South African government announced that it has decided to scale back its biofuel dreams because of concerns about food security. The new plan limits the number of crops that can be used as feedstocks (ruling out corn, for example) and sets a production target of just 2%.

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