Could Biomass Be The Answer To South Africa’s Energy Problem

South Africa is experiencing a mammoth energy crisis with its debt-laden national power utility, Eskom, being unable to meet the electricity needs of the nation. After extensive periods of load shedding in 2018 and again earlier this year, it is becoming increasingly important to find an alternative source of energy. According to Marko Nokkala, senior sales manager at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, South Africa is in the perfect position to utilize biomass as an alternative source of energy.

Things to Consider

Should South Africa choose to delve deeper into biomass energy production, there are a few things that need to be considered. At present, a lot of biomass (such as fruit and vegetables) is utilized as food. It will, therefore, be necessary to identify alternative biomass sources that are not typically used as food, so that a food shortage is never created in the process.


One alternative would be to use municipal solid waste from landfills and dumpsites as well as the wood waste from the very large and lucrative forestry industry in the country. It is also essential to keep in mind that an enormous amount of biomass will be needed to replace even a portion of the 90 million tons of coal that Eskom utilizes every year at its various power stations.

Potential Biomass Conversion Routes

There are a number of processing technologies that South Africans can utilize to turn their biomass into a sustainable energy source. Biochemical conversion involving technology such as anaerobic digestion and fermentation makes use of enzymes, microorganisms, and bacteria to breakdown the biomass into a variety of liquid or vaporous fuels.


Fermentation is especially suitable when the biomass waste boasts a high sugar or water content, as is the case with a variety of agricultural wastes. By placing some focus on microbial fermentation process development, a system can effectively be created that will allow for large-scale biofuel production. Other technologies to consider include thermal methods like co-firing, pyrolysis, and gasification.

Future of biomass energy in South Africa

Despite the various obstacles that may slow down the introduction of large-scale biomass energy production in the country, it still promises to be a viable solution to the pressing energy concern. Biomass energy production does not require any of the major infrastructures that Eskom is currently relying on.

Although the initial setup will require a substantial amount of electricity, running a biomass conversion plant will cost significantly less than a coal-powered power plant in the long run. With the unemployment rate hovering around 27.1% in South Africa at present, any jobs created through the implementation of biomass energy conversion will be of great benefit to the nation.


Without speedy intervention, South Africa may very soon be left in the dark. Although there are already a number of wind farms in operation in the country, the addition of biomass conversion facilities will undoubtedly be of great benefit to Africa’s southernmost country.

Biochemical Conversion of Biomass

Biochemical conversion of biomass involves use of bacteria, microorganisms and enzymes to breakdown biomass into gaseous or liquid fuels, such as biogas or bioethanol. The most popular biochemical technologies are anaerobic digestion (or biomethanation) and fermentation. Anaerobic digestion is a series of chemical reactions during which organic material such as human waste is decomposed through is decomposed through the metabolic pathways of naturally occurring microorganisms in an oxygen depleted environment.

Biomass wastes can also yield liquid fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, which can be used to replace petroleum-based fuels.If you are writing an essay related to this topic experts from the best custom essay service in usa advise you to read and analyze the information provided in this article.

Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion is the natural biological process which stabilizes organic waste in the absence of air and transforms it into biofertilizer and biogas. Anaerobic digestion is a reliable technology for the treatment of wet, organic waste. Organic waste from various sources is biochemically degraded in highly controlled, oxygen-free conditions circumstances resulting in the production of biogas which can be used to produce both electricity and heat. Biomass conversion technologies are slowing being built for home boilers also.

The team over at The Solar Advantage says this, ‘”Almost any organic material can be processed with anaerobic digestion. This includes biodegradable waste materials such as municipal solid waste, animal manure, poultry litter, food wastes, sewage and industrial wastes.”

An anaerobic digestion plant produces two outputs, biogas and digestate, both can be further processed or utilized to produce secondary outputs. Biogas can be used for producing electricity and heat, as a natural gas substitute and also a transportation fuel. A combined heat and power plant system (CHP) not only generates power but also produces heat for in-house requirements to maintain desired temperature level in the digester during cold season. In Sweden, the compressed biogas is used as a transportation fuel for cars and buses. Biogas can also be upgraded and used in gas supply networks. You can find learnerships in these specialised fields for those interested in a career in this sector.

Working of Anaerobic Digestion Process

Digestate can be further processed to produce liquor and a fibrous material. The fiber, which can be processed into compost, is a bulky material with low levels of nutrients and can be used as a soil conditioner or a low level fertilizer. A high proportion of the nutrients remain in the liquor, which can be used as a liquid fertilizer. Many companies are use R&D tax credits to carry out these initiatives.

Biofuel Production

A variety of fuels can be produced from waste resources including liquid fuels, such as ethanol, methanol, biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel, and gaseous fuels, such as hydrogen and methane. The resource base for biofuel production is composed of a wide variety of forestry and agricultural resources, industrial processing residues, and municipal solid and urban wood residues. Globally, biofuels are most commonly used to power vehicles, heat homes, and for cooking, apart from powering home boilers.

The largest potential feedstock for ethanol is lignocellulosic biomass wastes, which includes materials such as agricultural residues (corn stover, crop straws and bagasse), herbaceous crops (alfalfa, switchgrass), short rotation woody crops, forestry residues, waste paper and other wastes (municipal and industrial). Bioethanol production from these feedstocks could be an attractive alternative for disposal of these residues. Importantly, lignocellulosic feedstocks do not interfere with food security.

Ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass is produced mainly via biochemical routes. The three major steps involved are pretreatment, enzymatic hydrolysis, and fermentation. Biomass is pretreated to improve the accessibility of enzymes. After pretreatment, biomass undergoes enzymatic hydrolysis for conversion of polysaccharides into monomer sugars, such as glucose and xylose. Subsequently, sugars are fermented to ethanol by the use of different microorganisms.

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