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Biogas opportunities in Africa

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With the biogas industry seeing development across the globe, David Sonnenberg, co-founder of Uhuru Energy (Uhuru) is looking at the future opportunities for developing large scale biogas industries in Africa, aligned to the continent’s development goals.

Uhuru makes sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and develops large scale biomass energy, specifically its so-called indigo and amber biohydrogen, bioammonia, and biomethanol for fuel cells. 

Speaking during the World Biogas Association (WBA)’s Summit 2020, Sonnenberg stated that Africa has a failing coal-based power electricity system and the country is prone to blackouts. But, due to having the highest solar resource globally, and millions of acres of unused land, there is potential for a massive photovoltaic system in desert areas of South Africa.

The company uses agrovoltaics, a form of hybrid biomass solar projects, to harness the continent’s enormous amounts of sunshine in order to help grow biomass that can be used for biogas. 

Starting off as a way to provide diesel to farmers, buses and taxi operators, Uhuru began by allowing industries to buy energy from sustainable energy projects in rural communities.

Sonnenberg said: “Uhuru has the solutions to decarbonise any industry in Africa using biomass-based energy, and lately we’ve been inundated by approaches from multinationals.” 

Africa’s huge mineral deposits are far away from traditional energy sources. By growing the energy plants near to these deposits, minerals can be mined more sustainably and employment opportunities are created.

Uhuru grows crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) plants, such as Spekboom, Cactus Pear and Vetiver – commonly used in perfumes – for dry areas as a biomass feedstock for various energy sources, including diesel. 

The advantage of these plants is that they are not prone to dying when deprived of water, making them an ideal biomass crop for producing biomass in a continent with widespread desertification. 

Uhuru wants to farm 1 billion hectares of CAM plants, capable of producing 2m megawatts of baseload energy, potentially resulting in millions of litres of fuel for logistics, contributing to the decarbonisation of Africa’s carbon intensive mining industry. 

Sonnenberg added: “It can create up to 400m new sustainable jobs and rural wealth, or 100m new sustainable jobs.”

The plants also double as carbon sequestrators, capable of sequencing 7.5bn tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. 

Indigo biohydrogen biomass is processed through large-scale anaerobic digesters, whereas amber biohydrogen uses a thermal and mechanical process to decompose nonfermentable biomass. 

Uhuru believes that its efforts to accelerate biogas production in the continent could help accelerate the viability of green hydrogen in South Africa. The company is currently targeting fertiliser, food processing, mining, closed loop logistics, and aviation for its indigo and amber biohydrogen solutions.

Without competing with traditional food crops or arable farmland, the company is able to produce 650 tonnes per year of high purity hydrogen from its smaller biohydrogen modules, and around 3,200 tonnes per year of hydrogen from its larger module.