The objectives of the STEP-Bio Programme were to:
grow significantly the amount of sugarcane processing R&D being conducted in South Africa;
ensure the sugarcane processing R&D conducted is coordinated and aligned with the South African sugarcane processing industry’s strategic objectives;
create a sugarcane biorefinery research unit in KZN (in the region in which the biomass exists), including the necessary research infrastructure, high level human competence i.e. skilled and experienced researchers including appointing expertise at the Research Chair level;
fund R&D projects and post-graduate bursaries aligned with the sugarcane processing industry’s strategic objectives;
enhance R&D capacity and Science Engineering and Technology (SET) excellence;
increase the number of scientists, engineers and technologists with sugarcane biorefining competence available to join the sugarcane processing and allied industries;
initiate and develop the technology required to establish a technologically advanced agro-processing sugarcane processing industry in South Africa;
promote the development of a network of collaborators both locally and internationally;
generate commercialisable Intellectual Property; and ultimately
increase the overall competitiveness of the South African sugarcane processing industry which will lead to more sugarcane being grown and the creation of more jobs.
The SMRI issued two open calls for proposals aligned with the identified themes, namely:
Theme 1: Risk-mitigation: projects that will mitigate risks associated with increased production of bioethanol and cogeneration that could have environmental and sustainability impacts if not addressed. They also consider how so-called “waste” streams could be turned into revenue generating opportunities.
Project Cluster 1.1: Minimization and beneficiation of effluent (vinasse) from bioethanol production
Project Cluster 1.2: Disposal or beneficiation of boiler ash
Theme 2: Enabling of Opportunities that have the potential to boost industry profitability, but which, if not addressed, do not pose a clear risk, other than the omnipresent issue of economic sustainability.
Project Cluster 2.1: Options for biomass off-crop storage
Project Cluster 2.2: Value addition to sucrose
Project Cluster 2.3: Value addition to ethanol
Theme 3: Strategic and decision-support projects: intended to assist with providing information for decision-making purposes primarily to provide direction for further research efforts so as to be able to maximize the opportunities available in the medium term.
Project Cluster 3.1: The techno-economics of sugar, ethanol and cogeneration in South Africa
Project Cluster 3.2: Optimizing energy efficiency and integration in South African sugar mills
Project Cluster 3.3: Study of local market opportunities for bio-based chemicals from sugarcane
From the proposals received, nine projects were funded, three of which were multi-party collaborative projects, as shown below.
The STEP-Bio Programme commenced in October 2014 and concluded in June 2019. During the Programme, 2 Honors, 28 Masters and 9 PhD students were fully or partially funded, along with 11 post-doctoral researchers. Seventeen articles were published in accredited journals and numerous conference papers and posters presented on work undertaken on STEP-Bio projects. The project focus areas and details of publications and presentations may be found under the respective projects.
The Programme was successful in raising the level of awareness of the sugarcane industry in general and the biorefining opportunity in particular among the higher education community in South Africa, specifically in the science and engineering disciplines. This is likely to continue with the establishment of two National Research Foundation (NRF) South African Research Chairs in Sugarcane Bio-refining, one of which is receiving co-funding from the South African sugarcane processing industry and both of whom were key participants in the STEP-Bio Programme.
Prof. Johann Görgens (Tier 1)
Prof. Annegret Stark (Tier 2)
University of KwaZulu-Natal
With the raised industry awareness of the need for product diversification to ensure sustainability, the outputs of the two main projects, “Biorefinery techno-economic modelling and new product development” and “Assessment of energy use reduction and monitoring opportunities in sugar factories” have been well received by the respective industry reference groups. Specific outputs from the projects have already been taken into consideration by at least three companies in planning future developments and the circulation of the close-out reports and planned specific product position papers should provide further valuable insights to the industry.