Bio-energy research deals with technologies and processes for the production of energy products from plant biomass and carbon-rich wastes. Commercial bio-energy products include liquid transportation fuels (biofuels, bio-ethanol, biodiesel, synthetic diesel), heating oils (bio-oil), carbon rich solids (charcoal, char, biochar), and energy-rich gasses (biogas, product gas, syngas). These products can be manufactured by a range of chemical (biodiesel), thermochemical (pyrolysis, gasification-synthesis) and biological (hydrolysis-fermentation) conversion processes. Products find applications in the production of electricity, industrial and domestic heating, and driving of vehicles for transportation. Biochar products may also be applied as soil amendments for carbon sequestration and enhanced fertility. Most of the conversion processes also result in the onsite production of substantial amounts of heat as a by-product, available for local applications.
In March 2007 Stellenbosch University was awarded the SANERI Senior Chair of Energy Research (CoER): Biofuels and other alternative clean fuels. The CoER: Biofuels is based in the Department of Microbiology, Stellenbosch University, together with a team of core members from the Department of Process Engineering at Stellenbosch and the Department of Chemical Engineering at University of Cape Town. The vision of the CoER is to focus on the technological interventions required to develop commercially-viable value chains for 2nd generation biofuels in South Africa, and elsewhere.
The CoER specifically focuses on developing inter alia:
- Second generation technologies for the one-step fermentation of cellulose and starch to ethanol;
- Developing technology to make lignocelluloses a viable feedstock for biofuels production by biochemical conversion;
- Thermo-chemical conversion of biomass into biofuels;
- Process modelling for integrating biofuels and high-value chemicals production in biorefineries; and
- Costs and life-cycle analyses to evaluate the environmental and socio-economic impacts of these technologies.
More information is available on the CoER: Biofuels website at:
The new technologies and potential feedstocks that are being proposed aim for bioenergy to contribute to a wider range of economic, social, and environmental objectives. However, these advancements all require tradeoffs between potential technical advantages, and socio-economic and environmental consequences. Despite technological advances, a number of project failures have been noted with the development, design and implementation of such renewable energy systems in Africa. The problems that remain to be addressed are:
- How to screen bioenergy options based on technical feasibility, economic and financial viability, and social and environmental acceptance? This should be a first phase to prioritise and choose from the potential range of bioenergy options, in terms of their robustness and resilience.
- How to best implement technically feasible solutions, in an integrated manner, within the country's prevailing political, socio-economic and social-ecological systems?
- How to monitor the implementation of bioenergy programmes to ensure the sustainable adoption and operation of the chosen options?
The main problem is, therefore, how to ensure that policies and decision-making on bioenergy options result in localised social-ecological advantages that outweigh disadvantages. The complex behaviours that both socio-economic and ecological systems exhibit exacerbate this problem, primarily because of the fundamental uncertainty associated with them; these behaviours must be recognised and approaches are required to assess and manage behavioural uncertainties in a sustainable way. Therefore, both public and private sector policy-makers, decision-makers, and technology developers, operating from the regional and national levels to the local level, require robust methods to guide structured assessments and the subsequent management of proposed bioenergy systems; before they can make sound recommendations relating to bioenergy supply interventions.
In other words, developed methods must be practical for all levels of policy- and decision-makers, and technology developers, yet they must ensure that the sustainability of the integrated bioenergy supply systems are assessed comprehensively; appropriate information must be provided on technical, financial, socio-economic and environmental considerations so that the users can take informed decisions that lead to sustainable bioenergy interventions.
The BIOenergy Systems Sustainability Assessment and Management (BIOSSAM) portal, which is the outcome of a three-year parliamentary grant to the CSIR, aims to provide the comprehensive and holistic assessment, monitoring and management of bioenergy interventions in order to plan for sustainable development. BIOSSAM is a participatory and transparent process to decision-making that involves multi-stakeholder engagement coupled with expert and public opinion. This helps to ensure stakeholder buy-in as well as general trust brokering that facilitates the process of technology transfer and increases the long-term success of bioenergy interventions. The BIOSSAM portal is an information hub and an analytical framework with a toolbox of decision-support systems for the assessment, monitoring and management of bioenergy for sustainable development.
Another effort, at an international level, that seeks to bring the needed clarity and resolution to the uncertainty about whether to look to bioenergy to play a prominent role in the future, and if so, what policies are needed to ensure a sustainable result, is that of the Global Sustainable Bioenergy (GSB) project. Stellenbosch University is the host to the African convention of the GSB project.
More information on the BIOSSAM activities can be found at:
More details can be found at:
For more information please contact:
Prof Alan Brent