Converting plant biomass to fuels and commodity chemicals in South Africa: A third chapter?

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South African Journal of Science

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University of Cape Town

There have been two distinct chapters in the history of converting cellulosic biomass to fuels and commodity chemicals in South Africa. The first chapter, fromthe late 1970s to the early 1990s, involved some of the most active research and development efforts of their kind anywhere in the world. Thereafter, during the second chapter, there has been very little activity in the field in South Africa while there has been an unprecedented awakening to the potential of biomass conversion elsewhere. This paper considers the rationale and possible benefits of a potential third chapter based on a revitalized effort on biomass conversion in South Africa. Such an enterprise would build on the country's large biomass production potential, strong technical capability in yeast biotechnology, a well-developed research and development infrastructure in biological processing, and expertise derived from the largest non-petroleum hydrocarbon processing industry in the world. Substantial societal benefits could be realized that address critically important national needs, including the utilization of sustainable resources, industrial development, and improved balance of payments. Moreover, establishing a modern biomass processing industry in South Africa appears to represent one of the largest potential sources of rural employment identified to date.We propose steps to realizing these benefits.