Farmers sitting on several million tonnes of surplus maize have been thinking up new ways to dispose of the crop, and their attention has turned to biofuels. Excess maize can be converted to ethanol, which can make petrol burn cleaner and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Eight new maize-to-ethanol plants are planned for the major grain producing areas.
The first plant is being constructed in January in Bothaville, at an estimated cost of R600 million. All eight plants are intended to be up and running by 2012. Ethanol Africa is developing the plants, together with the Energy Development Corporation (EDC), a division of the stateowned Central Energy Fund.
According to Willie Prinsloo, who is running the private enterprise, EDC has 25.1 percent in shares, with an option of up to 30 percent. It may in future become compulsory in South Africa to add ethanol to petrol to boost octane levels without adding lead, and to cut emissions. Without this legislation, there is no definite market for ethanol in the country, but many European countries are importing ethanol to meet reduced emission levels set out in the Kyoto protocol.
Each plant will process about 370,000 tonnes of maize every year. A tonne of maize converts into about 420 litres of ethanol, along with useful by-products like bioethanol gel, a paraffin substitute, and a high protein stock feed known as DDGS. Sceptics have warned that farmers will divert their maize away from the ethanol plants if the maize price increases, making the venture's success uncertain.
Previously, Sasol has looked at creating a soya bean to diesel plant. Biodiesel has a low sulphur content, and would reduce dependence on fossil fuels. It has similar performance to conventional diesel and is biodegradable and non-toxic.
Some farmers already use oil extracted from sunflowers and canola to run their diesel machinery. However, soya bean production in South Africa would have to quadruple to meet the plant's input needs.