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November 20, 2008

The potential of sunflower biodiesel

by Leandi Cameron

In 1973, a fuel crisis hit the world, and then again in 1979, which led to South Africa, in desperate need of fuel, researching fuel crops in the hope of developing the very first biodiesel-from-sunflower technology.

SA Biodiesel director Frans Hugo, the leader of the original research team of the division of Agricultural Engineering that developed the sunflower-to-fuel technology in South Africa, reminisces: “During those fuel-crisis years, South Africa was unable to buy fuel over weekends, and one needed to get permission buy fuel over weekends to travel. In 1979, problems in Iran caused its government to stop all exportation of fuel, causing a huge fuel crisis worldwide.”

This problem was so acute that South African farmers were unable to buy the fuel required to plant as much as they intended to. This left South Africa vulnerable not merely on the transport-fuel front, but also to a food crisis, if the situation persisted.

“Myself and a few colleagues at the Agri-culture Engineering division of the Department of Agriculture were tasked to find a solution to curb the increasing fuel problem,” Hugo, who is also a former vice-president of the Agricultural Research Council, explains.

The team sought various possible solutions, all of which failed. An alternative-fuel project was then established, with the ‘dream’ of creating a fuel from agriculture for food production.

“At that time, we already knew that if you put sunflower oil into a tractor, it was able to work. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) had done tests on this before, but they unearthed multiple problems, which eventually led to them giving up on finding a solution,” he recalls.

Nevertheless, Hugo’s team set an audacious goal. The team calculated that, because it took 1 ha of sunflowers to produce 600 liters of sun- flower oil, a 100-ha farm would potentially be able to produce sufficient fuel from 10 ha to plough and plant the whole 100 ha of farmland.

With this as a motivator, the team started its three-year attempt at developing the process.
To test the viability of sunflower oil as a fuel, the team took a tractor, filled it with sunflower oil and started it. It worked.

“But then our dream turned into a nightmare. After the engine worked for between 70 hours and a 100 hours, it seized.”

The injector sprayed the fuel into a cylinder, but the replacement sunflower oil started coking up the injector with a sticky carbon substance, which, eventually, broke the engine.

“We thought that this was because the bio oil was thicker than the diesel, and thus unable to spray fine enough drops. So we built the world’s first machine to test the size of these droplets,” he says.

Different substances, besides others, illuminating paraffin and diesel, were used to thin the sunflower oil, but, after tests were done, it was established that the problem persisted.

In America, alcohol was combined with sunflower oil in a bid to deal with the clogging but, as SA Biofuels director Adriaan Louw recalls, the problem was the fact that alcohol and oil do not mix.

The breakthrough eventually came when the CSIR’s Dr Louwrens du Plessis suggested a chemical process for the sunflower oil diesel, which proved successful. The engine ran perfectly as long as the crude biodiesel was further extensively refined to fuel standards. Further, the biodiesel’s combustion was at least on a par, “if not superior”, adds Hugo.

The power output achieved using sunflower biodiesel was marginally inferior, while the fuel’s thermal efficiency, which establishes how well fuel is transformed into mechanical energy, was 10% higher than that of diesel.

Sunflower biodiesel, Hugo enthuses, reduces visible emission particles (exhaust smoke) by 36%, and according to the Americans, carbon monoxide by 44%, sulphate by 100%, aromatic hydrocarbons by 80%, and monocyclic aromatic hydrocarbons by 90%.

The only thing that counted against biodiesel was its fuel consumption, with diesel obtaining a 7% better performance on this measure.

By 1985, all the urgency was let out of the process as the fuel crisis ended and the research team gave up on furthering sun- flower biodiesel process development.

But the situation differed tremendously in Europe, given the continent’s continued subsidisation of farms producing sunflowers and maize. This led to something of a chronic overproduction, which resulted in an Austrian firm named Gaskoks approaching the South African agriculture engineers to obtain rights to the technology. This, in turn, resulted in the erection of the first industrial-scale biodiesel plant in Austria in May 1989.

“Because of the European Union (EU) subsidies, it was easier for those countries to capitalise on biodiesel technologies – they were able to reduce their food output and lessen their cost of importing fuel,” Hugo asserts.

However, the Europeans were not able to meet the one objective of reducing the food surplus, as the oil cake left behind is food. Therefore, they were not only producing biodiesel but also food, for which they needed markets.

Hugo is, therefore, fairly sanguine about the role of sunflower diesel in the now tighter food-fuel security environment. He asserts that as much as 20% of the diesel needed domestically could arise from crops without really affecting food production. By coincidence, 20% is also the amount of diesel that the agricultural community currently requires to produce the nation’s food. Therefore, he and others believe that, as fossil fuels are depleted and as environmental pressures rise, biofuels should not only be pursued for energy security, but also as a way of developing Africa’s rural economies.

“Traditional fuel production could decrease dramatically in the years ahead. The gap between production and demand is widening, and the question remains: How are we going to fill that gap? Biofuels will have to play a huge role,” Hugo avers, but acknowledges that it has to be seen as one part of the solution – it will “never completely fill the gap.”

The EU has established a guide for member countries to follow in converting to renew-able energy, which states that countries should have changed to at least 20% renewable energy usage by 2020. The German government wants to improve on this, aiming to convert to 50% renewable energy by 2015, and to 75% by 2020.

Hugo further notes that sunflowers can contribute greatly to reducing the depletion of the environment and to mitigating climate change. In its cultivation, a sunflower extracts carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, and stores carbon within the plant, releasing oxygen. Therefore, if it is converted for burning as a biodiesel, the carbon is combined with the oxygen again and the net effect is zero as it only releases what it has already extracted.

Mineral fuels, such as coal and crude oil, on the other hand, have been underground for millions of years and are filled with carbon. Once burnt as fuel, a new CO2 load is pumped into the atmosphere.

“Biodiesel should be seen as an opportunity and not just a solution towards ending a problem. For Africa, this is most true, as biodiesel can be an opportunity to improve economies in poor countries. Africa must move away from subsistence farming towards commercial farming. Commercial farming is able to increase a country’s agricultural yield tenfold. Sub-Saharan Africa has the biggest bio-diesel production potential in the whole world. We can become the new Middle East, and biodiesel cannot run out, like mineral fuels,” Hugo stresses.

But the technology still has many critics, from those worried that it will deplete food supplies and raise prices, to those who argue that its environmental benefits are not quite as good as advertised. In addition, many governments are worried about the creation of an unsustainable industry that will continue to require subsidisation to survive. The equation, therefore, has to be reworked from that of fuel or food, to fuel plus food, Hugo asserts. He is particularly bullish about crops such as sunflowers and soya beans, which he describes as multidimensional food sources that can be used for both food and fuel.

“From, for example, soya beans, you are able to make up to 20% biodiesel from the oil extract. The 80% that is left over is soya cake, which can go into a feed processing plant to feed fish, pigs and chickens. From sunflowers, 40% of the produce can be used for biodiesel; there is a loss of 20% husks but the 40% that is left is sunflower cake, which can be fed to cattle in feeding lots,” says Louw.

So, if a sunflower as a biodiesel-producing product is such a great idea, why is it not already in full production?

For one, it is a matter of simple economics. “Farmers are able to get more money for sunflower oil than they are able to get from biodiesel. Biodiesel will only come on line once diesel prices rise even higher,” Louw explains.

But with the US and Europe subsidising biofuel production, the previous food surpluses are coming under pressure. While food prices are still relatively low compared with where they might have been without the ongoing agricultural subsidies, they have escalated in recent times. Much of the blame has been laid at the door of the biofuels industry.

But Louw sees the higher food prices not merely as a threat, but also as an opportunity, particularly for Africa and its farmers, which could use the higher prices to expand commercial production of both food and fuel crops.

As for sunflower and other oil grains in the fuel equation, Hugo adds that it already has a legal advantage, as it is already a mandated fuel source. The constraint at the moment, ironically, is the high sunflower seed price, which makes the production of diesel nonviable.

Although a plus for sunflowers is that it has no legislative constraints, unlike biofuels producing crops such as maize, which is excluded from the biofuels policy.

“There a fundamental difference between maize and sunflowers. From maize you can produce petrol and from sunflowers you can produce diesel. In the biofuels world, there are two different biofuels. One is biodiesel, which replaces diesel fuel, and then you get bio- ethanol, which replaces petrol.

“Bioethanol is nothing but pure alcohol and is manufactured by fermenting maize or sugar or any other crops that contain sugar or starch. Government excluded maize as a possible feedstock for biofuel because it is a food. [It does] not want people to make bioethanol or alcohol from maize. There is no feedstock excluded for biodiesel because all its feedstocks are both fuel and food,” Hugo notes. He remarks that all the fuel and manu facturing companies in South Africa have already agreed on the manufacturing specifications for biodiesel, which are reflected in the South African Bureau of Standards specifications.

“The fuel companies are all willing to buy biodiesel and blend it up to 5% into their normal transport diesel volume. They have also stated that they are not prepared to pay more for it than they are paying for the basic fuel imports,” he says.

He further explains that sunflowers also have the advantage of being very drought resistant and can be planted anywhere. The possibility of expanding sunflower production is especially relevant for the western part of the country, where the rainfall is lower, although the price needs to be right for this to take place. Generally, one needs to get at least twice the price for each ton of sunflowers than what one will get for maize. If maize prices fall, and sunflower prices remain firm, people will shift from maize to sunflowers.

Hugo says he believes that fuel prices will soon become extremely high, and sunflowers will become a preferred fuel candidate, even if used just for agricultural purposes to produce food.

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