skip to content

MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Analysis of the potential for biodiesel implementation in South Africa

Charles Collins-Chase

Analysis of the potential for biodiesel implementation in South Africa

South Africa is the 15th highest per capita emitter of CO2 in the world, and the highest in Africa. Rising per capita energy demand and environmental problems stemming from fossil fuel use have spurred investigation of alternative fuels. Biofuels such as biodiesel may have the potential to decrease CO2 and other harmful emissions, as well as dependence on imported fuel.

Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils or animal fats, which are chemically reacted with methanol in a process called transesterification. Because it is synthesized from renewable sources, it offers lifecycle decreases in many harmful emissions, such as CO2, particulates, and sulfur oxides. It also has safety benefits for use and handling: it is less volatile and toxic than conventional diesel fuel.

While this fuel holds promise, it is unclear the impact it could have on South Africa. This research seeks to:

• Summarize the status of biodiesel production and research in South Africa, including current capacity, opportunities and barriers to greater implementation, and relevant political and social factors.
• Develop a series of scenarios for biodiesel implementation in two key market segments: mining and transport. Through these scenarios, determine the potential environmental and economic effects of varying levels of market penetration and highlight the production factors that have the largest impact on biodiesel’s economic and environmental viability within the South African context.
• Discuss the “oscillatory flow” biodiesel reactor being developed at the University of Cambridge and analyze its potential impacts on small-scale production.
• Analyze social and economic factors specific to South Africa that may influence production decisions such as scale and feedstock selection.
• Determine whether biodiesel implementation modes can be “exported” from South Africa as best practice to other neighboring African countries.

Research to date has summarized biodiesel initiatives in South Africa, as well as the political context for renewable energy and biofuels. Scenarios have been constructed for the substitution of biodiesel for conventional diesel in both the mining and transport sectors, and the implications of this substitution on land use and CO2 emissions have also been analyzed. In addition, the economic impacts of biodiesel production have been detailed with specific reference to these nationwide scenarios.

Next, a biodiesel reactor developed in Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering has been analyzed. This reactor uses oscillatory flow to combine the benefits of continuous flow systems and batch processes. The flows in and out of the reactor have been identified, and some basic analysis has revealed some of the lifecycle impacts of the process. Further, the implications of this reactor on production scale have been identified.

Due to the impact the oscillatory flow reactors (OFR) may have on small-scale production, this mode has been analyzed both generally and within the South African context. While community-based biodiesel production has been analyzed in other countries, such as the U.S., it has not been researched to as great an extent in South Africa. Therefore, cases studies of other community-based initiatives were used as indicators of the potential for biodiesel production on this scale in South Africa.


Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.