Thursday, July 7, 2022

Ramotswa factory producing biodiesel

Nothing about the exterior of the Biodiesel Botswana unit at a light industrial complex in Ramotswa station suggests anything trailblazing. However, it is here that Botswana’s nascent biofuel technology is taking its baby steps and as far away as Finland, some people are taking enough interest in the operations of this company to bankroll it.

The first and only facility of its kind in the entire country, this plant has been recycling waste cooking oil to produce biodiesel for the past six years. Its own truck uses this fuel as it travels from supermarket to fast-food eatery in Gaborone, collecting waste oil and delivering it to the recycling plant back at base.

Biodiesel Botswana’s operations have also attracted the attention of University of Botswana researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering and Technology. The researchers examined the performance of a single cylinder variable compression ignition engine powered using different fuel mixtures of biodiesel produced from used cooking oil and petroleum diesel.

The verdict, which was published last year in a scientific research journal called “Smart Grid and Renewable Energy”, was all positive: “The study revealed that the performance of the engine when powered by biodiesel and its blends with petroleum diesel is very comparable to its performance when powered by 100 percent petroleum diesel…The quality of biodiesel was affirmed by Biodiesel Botswana (Pty) Ltd’s quality control laboratory, which operates in line with international standards…Overall, the results … suggest that biodiesel fuel processed by Biodiesel Botswana (Pty) Ltd compares favourably well with petroleum-based diesel fuel used in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region”; and, “the results suggest that biodiesel produced from used cooking oil has the potential to improve energy security in Botswana.”

The company’s managing director, Boiki Mabowe, says that the facility produces 24 000 litres of biodiesel a month, a bulk of which is sold to Lobatse Clayworks and Asphalt Botswana. Individual users include farmers from neighbouring villages like Mochudi and Thamaga who use the fuel for their tractors, trucks and power generators. In addition to the biodiesel, the company sells two byproducts. Just a hop and a skip away from Biodiesel Botswana’s plant but within the same complex, is a soap-maker who buys glycerol (a viscous liquid within the alcohol family) from the plant.

Mabowe says that there is also a South African client who comes once in three months to buy some 2000 litres of the glycerol. The plant’s own process produces naturally-scented soap that Mabowe says is a hit with local residents because of its high performance. Half a bucket sells for P50 and the soap can be used in a washing machine.

Thanks to the generosity of the Finnish government, the Biodiesel Botswana plant is looking to doubling its production capacity by the end of next year. In first quarter of 2012, the company got a P1.7 million grant from the Energy and Environment Partnership (EEP) of Finland.

Mabowe says that this money will be used to diversify and expand feedstock, improve process efficiency, increase process production capacity, and reduce raw material losses.

“It will also include consultancy to increase customer base through the development and implementation of a marketing strategy,” he adds.

The latter has been very rudimentary. Mindful of the economic clout of local Chinese companies, the company has in the past tried to target these by advertising its products in Oriental Post, a Mandarin newspaper published locally but the response was not what had been hoped for.

Of all the establishments where Biodiesel Botswana gets waste cooking oil, only Nandos and Shoppers give it away free while it has to buy from the rest. The price ranges from one pula to P1.50 for a litre. Mabowe’s experience has been that horribly discoloured oil that has been used repeatedly is expensive to process. Through a process known as transesterification, the oil is converted into chemicals called long-chain mono alkyl esters – or biodiesel.

Mabowe explains thus: “Roughly speaking, 100 litres of oil or fat are reacted with 10 litres of a short-chain alcohol (usually methanol) in the presence of a catalyst (usually sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) to form 100 litres of biodiesel and 10 litres of glycerin. Glycerin is a sugar, and is a by-product of the biodiesel process. Biodiesel can be used directly as B100 (neat) or in a blend with petroleum diesel. A blend of 20 percent biodiesel with 80 percent petro-diesel by volume is termed ‘B20.’ A blend of 2 percent biodiesel with 98 percent petro-diesel is ‘B2′, and so on.” The process ends with pure biodiesel fuel being pumped into large ‘Jojo’ tanks and then it is market ready.

Mabowe says that biodiesel is typically blended with standard petroleum-based diesel to produce fuel that is compatible with diesel engines. The Biodiesel Botswana truck uses the B20 standard. He explains that the biodiesel is highly viscous and needs to be blended with petroleum diesel to thin it. One customer told him that he uses 100 percent of the biodiesel in his truck but he advised him against that because the fuel’s viscosity puts a lot of strain on the fuel pump and can ruin it as a result.

The story of Biodiesel Botswana starts in 2006 when an entrepreneur called Mike Bullock started the operation in Maun. Two years later, he decided to relocate to Ramotswa station upon realisation that there was more feedstock this side of the country. He later handed the reins over to his son, Kynn. Up to this point, the company had never really gained traction and so along the way, a decision was taken to put it on the market.

All this time Mabowe, a bio-energy specialist, was working at the Department of Energy Affairs in the Ministry of Minerals, Energy and Water Resources and had been working closely with the Bullocks on this project. And so, when the family decided to sell, he was the first person they offered the company to.

Although Botswana is yet unable to meet its energy needs, its annual average rate of increase in petroleum products demand currently stands at around 5 percent. All told, the country consumes about 950 million litres of petrol, diesel and illuminating paraffin in a year. It is projected that in the future, biofuels will contribute significantly to the country’s energy security. As part of its assessment for funding of the Morupule B Generation and transmission projects, the World Bank identified the need for improved energy security and expansion of local manufacturing capacity as critical growth and development imperatives. In this regard, Biodiesel Botswana will play a critical role in effort to ensure that the country attains energy security.

In the not-too-distant past, Biodiesel Botswana opened talks with the government to pilot biodiesel use for some vehicles in its fleet “for a year or two.” Although no headway has been made with regard to that proposal, the government’s own plan is to produce 15 million litres of biodiesel per year by 2016. In July this year, Biodiesel Botswana submitted an expression of interest in response to a request by MMEWR for biodiesel production from animal fat from government abattoirs. Mabowe says that the company has since been given the go-ahead to put together a proposal for such project.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper