South African sugar cane growers are developing an innovative and scalable technology to produce green charcoal, which will increase growers’ revenue and generate value from excess biomass.
“We are interested in producing green charcoal because it will create a parallel industry to the existing sugar and molasses industries and generate an addi- tional revenue stream,” states Mpumalanga Cane Growers Association grower affairs manager Justin Murray.
He explains that, currently, growers generate revenue from the sale of either sugar or molasses.
“Developing a green charcoal industry will enable us to transform our abundant biomass into a valuable product and improve our revenues,” says Murray.
The technology being investigated to develop green charcaol is pyrolysis technology, a carbon-negative process that uses waste biomass, such as manure and green waste, to produce renewable energy and biochar, a product that contains high quantities of stable carbon.
The renewable energy produced can displace fossil fuels, while biochar can sequester carbon beneficially over the long term in soil. The pyrolysis technology platform uses the thermo- chemical decomposition of organic material (biomass) at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen.
“We have investigated slow pyrolysis, fast pyrolysis and torrefaction. Pyrolysis is simply low oxygen combustion, which leaves the biomass behind in its carbon form and is compressed into briquettes,” he notes, adding that there is much interest in pyrolysis technology.
“Our research entailed the gathering of data from a pilot plant at the University of Stellenbosch, in the Western Cape, and discussions with the University of Pretoria. The plant which we would like to pilot in the Nkomazi district of Mpumalanga was initially developed in Namibia,” states Murray.
He notes that the project is still in its development stage and that the South African Cane Growers Association (Canegrowers) recently completed the prefeasibility study, which looks promising.
“Our next step is to develop a bankable feasibility study, which will be followed by a pilot plant. If we are able to raise the necessary funding, we would like to start developing the pilot plant as early as next year,” says Murray.
He adds that there is more than enough biomass to sustain the roll-out of this technology throughout the sugar industry, although some regions’ topography may pose a challenge in the collection and transport of biomass.
“We will continue to investigate the repurposing of biomass to enable growers to use their biomass to produce valuable products. Green charcoal may just be the first of many such projects throughout our industry,” he notes.
Meanwhile, South African sugar cane growers face a worrying scenario with regard to higher key input prices and the pressure of increased wage rates.
“The Large-Scale Grower Cost Survey monitors the cost trends of large-scale growers yearly. Survey results are audited by an independent consultant,” says Canegrowers communication manager Jayne Ferguson, adding that production costs increased nominally on average by 10.8%, which is the weighted average, excluding management allowance from the 2011 to the 2012 season.
“Price increases of all cost items were well above the increase in the consumer price index, with the cost of herbicides, fuel and electricity rising the most.
“Gross income in 2012 is projected to have increased by 12.45% from 2011, based on a 5.9% increase in the price of recoverable value and a 7% increase in production, owing mainly to an improvement in cane quality, compared with the poor quality of the 2011 season,” she states, adding that the industry currently generates a yearly income of R10.49-billion.
Ferguson points out that the partnership between the cane-growing and milling sectors is at the dawn of a new era.
When finalised and implemented, the new partnership will require that Canegrowers further adapt to provide relevant and effective services for growers as they pursue the vision of ‘growing the industry pie’ through a strategy of consolidation and diversification,” she states.
Ferguson explains that Canegrowers represents the 27 000 cane growers who produce about 20-million tons of cane in an average season from about 378 000 ha.
“The cane-growing regions are situated through the eastern seaboard and midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, into the Pongola region of northern KwaZulu-Natal, and in the Komati and Malalane regions of Mpumalanga,” she says.
Ferguson further explains that the goal of Canegrowers is to secure a sustainable South African cane-growing sector that increases the value of sugar cane in an agro-industrial environment.
“Canegrowers plays a leading and unifying role in protecting, communicating and serving the interests of all cane growers,” she says.
“We aim to be effective, visionary and innov- ative leaders within the diverse cane-growing communities and to ensure that all cane growers receive fair value for all the components of the sugar cane plant.
We also provide appropriate services to enhance the sustainability of all cane growers and effective protection of growers’ interests through lobbying, advocacy and communication. We also ensure the unity of growers through appropriate structures,” states Ferguson.
She notes that, from Canegrowers’ perspec-tive, new participants in the sugar industry require agronomic and capacity-building training.
“We provide these services through dedicated resources and identified training needs. An example of a training project is the leadership training programme for emerging farmers. It is designed to provide new entrants to the sugar industry with the knowledge required to ensure their meaningful participation in the grower structures,” she concludes.