Biofuels are not new in South Africa. During the past thirty years two types of renewable fuels, biodiesel and ethanol, have been considered as products that could be produced locally. Biodiesel was considered, particularly by the agricultural industry, as a replacement for diesel in agriculture. The technical developments of manufacturing this fuel and proving its efficiency were conducted in the period 1979 to 1983. More particulars are provided below.

The use of ethanol in petrol followed SASOL's development in which coal was used to produce gas and carbohydrates were synthesised according to the Fischer-Tropsch process. Ethanol and other alcohols are by-products of the process with ethanol being used in fuel even in the 1970's. Ethanol was also produced commercially by African Products and marketed for industrial use. The original agricultural product used in their case was mainly sugar cane, but the ethanol produced was not used as fluid fuel. The development of the ethanol industry, based on the fermentation of maize, sugar beets and other crops is discussed below.

The expected boycott of crude oil exports to South Africa in the seventies was the incentive for engineers in the CSIR mechanical research group to experiment with sunflower and other plant oils to determine whether these could be used to replace diesel fuel either partially or completely. The Minister of Agriculture at that time realised the strategic benefits of the technology and approved agreements between the CSIR and the Department of Agriculture (Agricultural Engineering) to develop the technology. In 1980, Bruwer and co-workers announced, at an agricultural congress, that sunflower oil esters were proven diesel replacements. Pure sunflower oil was not successful in all engine types and the ADE tractor engines, particularly, experienced injector problems. These problems were mainly solved by preparing sunflower oil ethyl esters, proving that ester combustion was successful. Upon invitation, the South Africans used the results to boast about the process.

It was decided that the technology should not be available only for commercial use by private companies. The CSIR and the Department of Agriculture started with the registration of the process while a private company, Epic Oil, also began work in earnest. The registration process was hampered by a small Belgian publication, published in 1952, mentioning that plant oils and esters were used for diesel engine testing.

By 1983 about 100 tonnes ethyl esters from Central West's de-adhesive grade sunflower oil were manufactured for engine testing. One of the foreign visitors to the plant was from Austria who took the technology back to Europe where the first tests with this technology were conducted in 1982 and by 2001 there were 20 biodiesel plants in Europe all functioning as commercial enterprises. In 1984 the South African decision-makers decided that the use of sunflower oil was not economically viable and because the crude oil boycott had by then been averted, further technological development in South Africa was suspended.

Two internet sources provide useful information on the history of biodiesel in South Africa. 'The potential of sunflower biodiesel' (published in African Agriculture, Nov 20, 2008, by Leandi Cameron) provides an overview. The technical particulars were provided by Frans Hugo. The other source is a book, 'Biodiesel: growing a new energy economy' by Greg Pahl (first edition 2004 and second edition 2008). He describes the South African events during the eighties, up to 2008.

The Protein Research Foundation (PRF) interest in biodiesel is not focused on biofuel as such, but on by-products that may result from the manufacturing of biofuel if such by-products can be classified as protein sources in terms of the PRF definition of this term. The definition states that a potential source of protein for animal consumption must contain at least 25% protein for the PRF to consider providing research funding for determining the value of such a source.

The use of grain and oil seeds as raw materials for the manufacture of biodiesel and ethanol respectively grasped the attention of the PRF immediately. Initial indications were that several million tonnes of maize could be used as a raw material for the production of ethanol in South Africa. This process results in a by-product known as Distillers Dried Grain and Solubles (DDGS) which complies with the PRF definition of protein and could be used for animal feed.

After the USA entered the biofuel scene on a large scale, and after the publication of more information about the process and its by-products, particularly in terms of the protein fraction of DDGS, the PRF decided to send a fact-finding delegation to Europe and the USA to determine whether this could be used as a protein source for animals, in which case the commercialisation of the process could be investigated for South Africa.

The delegation found that if DDGS were to be produced in South Africa it would contribute significantly to the PRF mission to replace imported protein with locally-produced protein. This would involve all the associated benefits relating to the replacement of imports.

The initiators of the possible establishment of such an industry based their research on the use of maize in South Africa and this initiative was supported by the maize industry. But the government decided that the availability of food needed to be protected and totally prohibited the use of maize for the production of ethanol, which was a disappointment for those involved in the biofuel planning process.

With the promulgation of the 'Biofuel Industrial Strategy for South Africa 27b', November 2007, various raw materials were authorised for use in the production of biofuel but none of these raw materials are available on a sustainable basis in South Africa, although there has been much speculation that soybeans would be the best possible alternative, particularly from the PRF point of view.

South Africa is a relatively large importer of crude oil and fuel, of plant oils and of proteins for animal use, and indirectly, therefore, of protein for human consumption. Any biofuel production in South Africa could therefore result in a win-win situation, but limitations include a lack of government support for such an industry which would require their subsidisation, as well as a sustainable supply of raw materials.

For some time various other raw materials have been mentioned as possible alternatives in South Africa. These include some relatively unknown and some totally unknown materials which are discussed in various reports available on this web site. Triticale (korog), jatropha and algae are often mentioned, but local success using these is unlikely. In terms of potential oil seeds, soybeans and canola are the most likely to be successful.

Licences in terms of various raw materials have been issued on a limited basis and include a licence for soybeans as a basic material. According to PRF norms this oilseed could make a useful contribution, but no commercial progress is known at this stage.

The PRF accepts that it is a matter of time before commercial success is achieved and therefore stays up to date in terms of the latest developments so that it can act timeously and optimally.

The information is available from two sources:

  1. Protein Research Foundation website
  2. SABA (South African Bioenergy Association) website