Background Traveling through the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa in 2010 I witnessed many bush and grazing land fires, and the burning of sugarcane plantation before being harvested. Such fires have two major impacts on the ecosystem: reducing soil fertility and creating air pollution with an effect on human health and global warming. A local pollution can become a regional pollution as it is illustrated below from the Drakensberg mountains in Lesotho. It is common practice by farmers to burn their dry bush and grazing land, and their cane plantation to reduce its volume by burning off the leaves before the cane is transported to the sugarcane mill.

Source: Jean Faullimmel: View of South Africa from the Drakensberg, Lesotho, August 2010

Although the soil minerals bring necessary nutrients to plant growth, it is not enough. It is the organic matter that gives fertility to the soil. Unfortunately, through these fires, this organic nutrients are burned off and at the same time kill the microorganisms the soil needs to regenerate. The biology of the soil is being damaged by the loss of organic matter.

Source: Jean Faullimmel: Burned grassland in South Africa, August 2010

To keep a soil fertile, it needs to have more than 1% of organic matter, and to regenerate naturally the soil fertility to its proper balance of mineral and organic matters is a long process. In the past African farmers let their land lie fallow after harvest for up to ten years but with an increasing population this is not possible anymore. The depletion of soil nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen can be compensated by synthetic fertilizers, but the humus, the organic top soil, can take many years to be replaced. The formation of humus is a natural carbon capture and storage process. Damaging the soil s biology also changes the physical structure of the soil. It leads to soil erosion and making it harder to retain water and nutrients. Bringing back soil fertility and reducing air pollution, simply means to stop such fires. One of the cornerstone in the concept of Sustainable Development is pollution prevention. So how can we prevent bush and sugarcane plantation fires? One way is to use this organic matter that is traditionally burned and instead transform it into renewable green energy.

Renewable energies Non-renewable energies, such as fossil and radioactive fuels are limited in nature and are consumed much faster than nature can produce them. On the other hand, renewable energies come from natural processes: biomass, solar, wind, ocean currents and geothermal energies can all be harnessed to generate electricity. To have kept a biodiversity for hundred of thousands of years, a natural circular economy was in place. It is the cooperation and reciprocity that regenerates and renews the ecosystem. Such economy is necessary for the survival of the planet Earth. History has taught us that civilizations mainly disappeared because of the imbalance between economic development and the recovery of the natural environment. Too much deforestation eventually leads to lack of water, soil erosion and drought. Today the severe air, water and soil pollution in major developing countries is a result of this great imbalance between economic and environmental development. If this trend continues, sooner or later we will reach a point of no return. In view of the depletion of fossil fuels , the safety issues with nuclear plants and the disposal or recycling of its radioactive

waste, the world has no other choice than to shift to renewable energies to preserve our planet. But what renewable energy is the most appropriate, the most economically efficient, and that works? For developing countries with a lot of crop farming and animal waste, the development of biogas, can be a sustainable alternative to fossil fuel energy.

Biogas What is biogas? It is a mixture of methane, carbon dioxide and monoxide and hydrogen sulphide produced by fermentation of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. It is an anaerobic biodegradation using microorganisms such as bacteria. The composition of these gases depends on the biological material used. Biomass energy can be sourced from waste generated from livestock and crop production, highly concentrated organic wastewater, or any organic waste easily biodegradable. On the average, methane represents 50 to 70%, carbon dioxide about 30% and then small amounts of hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen.

Source: Jean Faullimmel: Biogas digester, China, June 2010

Biogas can be used as fuel, like natural gas, in household for cooking and heating and in vehicles. When burned it gives off much less toxic substances than when using liquid fossil fuels.

The use of biogas The interest in biogas is driven by economics, environmental concerns and less dependence on fossil fuels. In China, the original home of anaerobic digestion, they use livestock manure, crop residues, agro-processing and municipal waste, and sewage sludge. Such organic waste is converted into clean methane fuel that provides already electricity to around 30 million rural people who are still dependent on kerosene lamps for lighting, and to millions of others who still rely on firewood and other agricultural

wastes to heat their homes and cook their meals. Biogass energy is a sensible renewable energy option for rural areas and it can be cost-effective. It has a great potential to make a significant impact on two of the country's most pressing development challenges: rural poverty and environmental damage. The number of biogas digesters reached 31 million at the end of 2008, equivalent to 9 GW (gigawatt) of renewable energy, mostly in small rural households. Biogas development in Germany has also become Europe s fastest growing renewable energy sector. Big companies are involved in developing biogas refineries to produce pure methane to be fed into the natural gas grid. In the 1990s Sweden has also pioneered the use of biogas methane as vehicle fuel. By June 2007, there were 12,000 vehicles driving on biogas methane and 500 filling stations and 70,000 vehicles were expected by 2010. A new plant was built in Stockholm to supply the capital with methane both as vehicle fuel for buses and cars and for the city gas grid.

How is biogas produced? The carbon cycle process involved in the production and utilization of biogas is illustrated below:

Source : Agro Industry Indonesia The biomass are carbohydrates, molecules containing carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The biosynthesis is a four-step process: hydrolysis, acidogenesis, acetogenesis and methanogenesis, using a distinct type of bacteria for each step. All four steps can occur in a single reactor. It is a natural way of turning organic solid waste into gas. Fermentation reactors are usually built near the organic source.

Advantages of biogas production The development of biogas energy has several advantages, especially in rural areas of developing countries, but developed countries are concerned as well in order to reduce their dependence on fossil fuel. These advantages are: 1. Production of green energy is safe and non polluting. 2. Reduction of methane emissions into the atmosphere as it is a potent greenhouse gas. (Methane absorbs 21 times more heat than carbon dioxide). 3. Environmentally recirculation of organic waste and regeneration of the ecosystem. 4. Reduction of air pollution and protection of human health.

The development of biogas in South Africa In the context of South Africa the development of green energy can be very beneficial for the rural population. At the same time, instead of burning sugarcane plantation and grassland, that generates serious air pollution, the grass and cane leaves can be used as raw materials for the production of biogas. Instead of polluting, it is a controlled method of waste disposal that produces fuel and high quality organic fertilizer. Biogas will enable communities to participate in the power sector, since these raw materials would be extracted from these communities. It would create new jobs and encourages agricultural development, and improved living conditions of low income families. The production of biogas can also be done on an industrial scale to supply the city gas grid. Also important, using organic matter instead of burning it, would not only improve soil fertility and regenerate the ecosystem, but also would reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers by replacing them by bio-fertilizers.

References: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. Jean Faullimmel, Environmental consulting trips to South Africa and China, 2010. Institute of Science in Society, Green Energies 100% renewable by 2050. Institute of Science in Society, Biogas China. Google, biogas images.


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