You are regarded as a research leader and expert on biofuels. In short, tell us what your research is about?
When I joined Stellenbosch University in 1992 my position was partly sponsored by industry interest in yeast that can ferment more than just sugars to ethanol. We designed synthetic genes and produced certain enzymes (cellulases). These enzymes are required to break down cellulose (important components of plants) in woody material to sugars that can be fermented to ethanol by baker’s yeast.
With the spiking of oil prices in the early 2000s, combined with the global awareness of climate change, our work became very relevant in finding new ways of producing ethanol as biofuel from non-food plant products, such as agricultural by-products (like sugarcane bagasse and maize stover), as well as industrial waste-streams from the paper-and-pulp industry.
Together with international collaborations we were able to create laboratory strains of baker’s yeast that produce sufficient quantities of cellulase enzymes to break down cellulose and subsequently ferment the released sugars to ethanol in one step, a process called consolidated bioprocessing (CBP). This was a world-first. In close collaboration with Prof Johann Görgens at Process Engineering, we are currently trying to develop industrial CBP yeast strains suitable for cellulose conversion and demonstrating ethanol production from paper-sludge (a by-product of papermaking) at a larger scale for possible commercialisation.
Why is this area of research so important?
In the search for alternatives to fossil fuels, biofuels will always play a significant role in finding renewable fuel resources for particularly heavy vehicle, marine and aviation fuels. Bioethanol already constitutes the bulk of biofuels produced worldwide in excess of 100 billion litres per year, however, about 60% from maize starch in the USA is not sustainable and can compete with food production.
Providing that technologies (including CBP yeasts) can be developed for industrial application, the commercial production of biofuels from non-food plant residues promises to be more sustainable, environmentally friendly, cost-effective and not competing with food production. As fossil fuel prices will surge again in future, cellulosic ethanol may not only become the best renewable alternative but the cheaper alternative, also considering the indirect costs of global warming, which have not been really calculated into the cost of using fossil fuels.
You recently won a prestigious award from the South African Academy for Science and Arts. What does such recognition mean to you?
The Academy’s Havenga Prize is a special acknowledgment – not only special because it is one of the highest honours, but especially because I know several previous recipients personally and have a lot of respect for everyone as academics and internationally-acclaimed researchers. I therefore find myself in distinct company.
Apart from this award, what have been some of the other highlights of your academic career?
Apart from scientific achievements, such as developing CBP yeast and the international collaborations that were generated in the process, there is the opportunity to work with about 70 postgraduate students in obtaining their Master’s and PhD degrees. It has been satisfying to follow some of them closely in developing their own careers and I’m particularly privileged to still have active collaborators with ex-students, now full-fledged researchers in their own right!
Academic life can sometimes be quite competitive. How do you stay ahead of the pack?
Academics are kind of a weird breed – being passionate about sciences, we tend to be hooked by our research and often go the extra mile and dig very deep for the energy and driving force to continue our careers at universities. With limited funding and support in South Africa, you have to remain creative, apply your mind and work extra hard at it against all odds to stay on par with the international pack, let alone trying to be ahead of the pack! Maybe my generation started our careers in a time when financial and societal pressures were not so tense – my heart goes out to young academics that try to make it in today’s tertiary institutions when academics are expected to be good teachers, good researchers (and therefore fundraisers!), good managers, dealing with increased administrative and societal pressures, and somewhere in between try to have a personal life!
What are the things that make you tick?
Being a workaholic for the larger part of my life, I rediscovered my first love, which is nature and to be out there, over the last five to eight years. That is why I became a scientist in the first place! With our sons through university and building their own lives, my wife and I now frequently take our off-road trailer and go camping in SANParks and other remote places, including our neighbouring countries, for extended times. We then enjoy our new passion – amateur photography of wild-life! We recently returned from a 76-day trip through Namibia, Botswana and Kgalagadi, which was a life-changing experience of not only awesome pictures, but also having to negotiate with jackals, hyenas and even elephants frequently visiting our campsite!
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