JOHANNESBURG – SUGARCANE growers could get a new lease on life after a study found it was feasible to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) using ethanol derived from sugar cane.
This could yield about 433 million litres a year, taking more than half the near-stagnant sugar-cane output.
The study, jointly undertaken by the South African Canegrowers Association (SA Canegrowers) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, found that if 50 percent of the country’s 19 million plus tons of annual sugar-cane production was diverted to the production of ethanol, it could lead to an output of about 700 million litres of low-carbon ethanol, which could make 433 million litres of SAF using “alcohol-to-jet” fuel refineries.
Thomas Funke, the chief executive of SA CaneGrowers, said local farmers have had to sell their sugar to an over-supplied global market, often at a loss, as a result of cheap sugar imports flooding the country.
“The production of SAF would give South African farmers a better alternative, allowing them to redirect their product to the local SAF market rather than the global sugar market.
“With increased demand for local cane from both the sugar and SAF industries, local farmers would have an opportunity to grow their operations and create more employment opportunities,” he said.
The report was presented to the Value Chain Diversification Task Team, which includes representatives of SA Canegrowers and stakeholders from industry and government, earlier this month.
The task team was set up under the Sugar Industry Value Chain Masterplan, which was created to draw up a medium- to long-term diversification strategy for the sugar-cane value chain.
Funke said the increased demand could create room for many new entrants into cane farming. With significant investment and an enabling regulatory environment, the SAF market could completely change the trajectory of the industry.
He said, however, that a long road lay ahead, because the report had only been just presented to the the Masterplan task team, which includes representatives from the government and the broader industry.
“As government and industry engages with this research, skills development will be a critical aspect of determining the viability of this diversification option. In fact, the report includes a call to ensure that the knowledge, expertise and skills of employees are developed in line with the needs of the business and to grow the socio-economic potential of each individual employee,” he said.
Hurdles along the way include the creation of an enabling regulatory framework, empowering small-scale growers with essential structures and equipment to ensure occupational health and safety, and proving internal farm level administrative support.
In addition, to promote the use of local labour, preferential labour laws and procurement processes would have to be implemented. Furthermore, proper impact assessments would have to be carried out, and the national greenhouse gas reporting requirement would have to be improved.