Experts share insights and new developments in biorefinery technologies

Increasing population growth is forcing governments around the world to seek innovative methods to ensure food and energy security. The current estimated global population of 7,3 billion is expected to reach 8,5 billion by 2030, accompanied by an increasing demand for food, animal feed, energy, and industrial products.

In the South African context, these challenges are compounded by the fact that a number of mature industries have begun to decline. The revitalisation of resource-based industries � including the sugar, pulp and paper, and textiles industries � will require new strategies and technologies for sustainability in a low-carbon future.

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), said South Africa has developed a set of policy mechanisms in response to these challenges.

Mjwara was speaking during the 7th International Conference on Biorefinery, which took place at the Birchwood Hotel in Kempton Park from 19 to 21 August 2019. The event was jointly organised by the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Pretoria and the Beijing University of Chemical Technology.

According to Mjwara, these policy mechanisms include the Bio-economy Strategy, which supports research, development and innovation (RDI) in biological production processes, the Green Economy Accord, which aims to shift the economy to a lower carbon intensity while increasing jobs and industrial development, and the Bioenergy Atlas, a decision-making tool that provides data on biomass availability in the country.

"All of these policy and decision-making instruments are aimed at enhancing the development of sustainable industries, protecting the environment and food resources, and mitigating climate change," said Mjwara.

The DSI is driving a number of initiatives aimed at developing a sustainable biorefinery industry in South Africa, with a focus on projects that have the potential to optimise socio-economic development, especially in rural areas.

In March 2018, the DSI, in partnership with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), launched the Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF), which supports RDI programmes that enhance industry competitiveness and promote job creation.

In partnership with the BIDF, the DSI further established the Biorefinery RDI Consortium, which seeks to develop cutting-edge biorefinery technologies across the biomass value chain, while nurturing a cohort of skilled researchers and engineers to support the country's biorefinery capabilities.

"We believe that an integrated biorefinery approach can be applied across a number of market sectors, including chemicals, mining, health, agriculture, food, feed, pulp, paper, textiles, water and energy � and that it offers potential solutions to a number of the challenges facing these sectors," the Director-General said.

Also addressing the conference, Ms Khungeka Njobe, the CSIR's Group Executive for Business Excellence and Integration, said the CSIR was positioning its RDI programmes to address issues facing society.

"We align strongly to achieving sustainable development and environmental management, and have the advantage of being able to deploy multiple disciplines and competencies to solve societal problems and contribute to sustainable economic development," Njobe said.

She added that the BIDF aims to lower the barriers for existing and new industry players to develop and test biorefinery technologies, and to adapt these technologies to local socio-economic and environmental conditions and biomass sources.

The conference also witnessed the signing of a memorandum of understanding for the establishment of the South Africa-China Joint Research Centre on Clean Energy.

Speaking after the signing ceremony, Ambassador Lin Songtian from the Chinese Embassy said the centre would serve as a platform for joint innovation between the two countries in the fields of clean energy and environmental protection technology, thus further promoting China-South Africa cooperation in science, technology and innovation (STI).

"The Chinese Embassy in South Africa will continue to serve as a bridge to actively support the science and technology departments and universities of the two countries to carry out STI cooperation and make new contributions to the common development of China and South Africa," Songtian concluded.

Source: Department: Science and Technology