The South African government has launched a R37.5 million biorefinery facility designed to develop technologies for extracting maximum value from biomass waste streams. The facility, a first for South Africa, will support innovation in a range of industries including forestry, pulp and paper manufacturing and agro-processing.
The Minister of Science and Technology, Mamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, launched the Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF) at the CSIR in Durban in March. It is located close to several biomass processing facilities like pulp and paper mills, and will promote collaboration with the private sector.
The initial focus of the BIDF is the forestry and pulp and paper industries, which are under financial strain globally. Technology innovations have been earmarked to revitalize these sectors and help prevent job losses.
High-value products can be extracted from sawmill waste and pulp mill sludge, like nanocrystalline cellulose, xylitol, biopolymers and biogas.
The facility is the third Industry Innovation Partnership Fund (IIPF) initiative to be launched by the Department of Science and Technology and the CSIR. The other two are the Biomanufacturing Industry Development Centre and the Nanomaterials Industrial Development Facility.
Speaking at the launch of the BIDF, Minister Kubayi-Ngubane said South Africa needed more investment in research, development and innovation to “turn around” the sluggish South African economy, address unemployment and reduce inequality.
She said that the BIDF is a good example of partnerships between government and industry.
“Government alone cannot achieve this transformation without the private sector. Partnerships are very important – especially between government and industry. We need to find innovative ways of revitalizing industries.”
Prof Bruce Sithole, CSIR Manager for Forestry Products, said the biorefinery facility can process various types of biomass, test new technologies and products and upscale them to industrial level.
He said some of the processes and products are suited to small-scale enterprises, creating opportunities for development of local SMMEs.
“We have sophisticated analytical equipment and pilot scale infrastructures, like rotating digesters which enables the fractionalisation of biomass into components.
“We are working with entrepreneurs to upscale some of these new products,” he said, mentioning a collaboration with Hans Merensky which manages plantations and sawmills in the province.
The BIDF team is also working with pulp and paper manufacturers to reduce the use of bleach in the pulping process which would lead to huge cost savings, and to produce high value products like nanocrystalline cellulose.
Prof Sithole said that the BIDF had the potential to be of service to other sectors, for example, exploring the use of chicken feathers in high-value products.
Small quantities of waste chicken feathers are processed into feed for livestock, but the majority of the waste is traditionally disposed of by burning or landfilling. However, the BIDF is demonstrating that keratin can be successfully extracted from the poultry by-product to be used in high-value applications, such as nanostructured materials for biomedical applications.
General Manager of the Sappi Technology Centre, Dr Nelson Sefara, said Sappi was also looking at biorefinery technologies to get more value out of the trees that they grow in their plantations. He said that Sappi was far advanced in developing new biorefinery products, and that 10% of the company’s revenue would come from new products coming out of waste streams by 2020.
*First published in SA Forestry magazine, May 2018