Taking Africa from biomass to green gas

04 April 2024 | Story Nicole Forrest. Photo Supplied. Read time 6 min.
A global green fuel partnership between Germany and South Africa empowers Africa and paves the way for a sustainable world.
A global green fuel partnership between Germany and South Africa empowers Africa and paves the way for a sustainable world.

On 22 March 2024, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Catalysis Institute welcomed the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) state secretary, Professor Dr Sabine Döring. The state secretary’s visit was focused on providing an update on the progress of the BMBF-funded GreenQUEST clean household fuel project.

One-third of the world’s population lacks access to clean household energy. Nearly one billion of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa and are forced to rely on fuels such as biomass (eg wood), coal and kerosene to cook and to heat their homes.

Although these fuels are cheap and accessible, they’re inefficient, and highly polluting. When burned, these combustibles produce a mixture of soot and smoke. This causes a variety of illnesses, and ultimately results in nearly four million premature deaths worldwide each year.

The problem is particularly pervasive in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 80% of the population relies on these fuels for cooking and heating. It also disproportionately affects women and girls, who are typically responsible for gathering and preparing fuel, as well as for cooking meals.

In addition to the adverse health impacts, gathering these fuels significantly reduces the time available for education and other productive activities. It also drives deforestation and soil erosion, accounts for 20% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, and often creates safety risks for women and girls.

While this is clearly a pressing issue, fortunately – as proven by the GreenQUEST project – the problem is not insurmountable.

From fossil fuels to green energy for Africa

Professor Jack Fletcher of the UCT Catalysis Institute, which forms part of the Department of Chemical Engineering in UCT’s Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, pointed out that action has been taken to transition users across Africa to one clean energy source in particular. However, he noted that the solution is not without its issues.

“What we’re already seeing on the African continent, and probably elsewhere in the world, are moves to switch these communities to clean fuel. That fuel usually turns out to be liquified petroleum gas (LPG). It’s clean burning [and] it’s efficient; but it is, of course, still a fossil fuel,” he said.


“GreenQUEST seeks to provide a green, clean fuel equivalent to fossil LPG. We do this by taking carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere and combining it with green hydrogen.”

Understanding that LPG is appealing not only because of its excellent heating capacity but also because of the wide availability of LPG-compatible cooking equipment, the team behind the GreenQUEST project set out to develop a viable, sustainable green fuel product that could supplement and eventually replace LPG.

“GreenQUEST seeks to provide a green, clean fuel equivalent to fossil LPG. We do this by taking carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere and combining it with green hydrogen, which we get from renewable wind and solar energy, to make a fuel that is essentially equivalent to LPG except that it is not a fossil-based fuel,” Professor Fletcher continued.

“Our aim is that green liquified fuel gas, which we call LFG or gLFG, would supplant fossil LPG to bring all the same benefits, but in an essentially carbon-neutral manner, in keeping with global net-zero targets.”

Interdisciplinary innovation

GreenQUEST was born from the realisation of the positive effects of using clean and cost-effective fuels, on society, the environment and the economy. Apart from developing the green LFG, it now seeks to better understand the implications of introducing this new type of energy carrier into society.

Dr Tobias Sontheimer, the head of the strategy department for Energy and Information at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB), pointed out that the project’s multidisciplinary approach is key to developing a viable, sustainable green fuel product.

“Global energy challenges are complex and interconnected, and individual disciplines cannot address them. Therefore, interdisciplinary research is imperative. GreenQUEST seamlessly integrates technology development [and] economic and environmental analysis with social outreach,” he explained.

“This unique consortium develops feasible pathways for producing green LFG in Southern Africa. The technological work is deeply integrated into an in-depth assessment of the economic, environmental and social dimensions along the entire green-LFG value chain.”

United against climate change

Just as crucial as transdisciplinary research in tackling climate change and social issues, said Dr Sontheimer, is international cooperation.

“Global collaboration is crucial in addressing the monumental challenge of climate change. By taking advantage of these opportunities for global partnerships, countries can work together to create a sustainable future for all.

“Accelerating the development of sustainable energy solutions to match the urgency of tackling climate change demands investment in clean energy research and innovation. It also builds on having collaborative partnerships globally to boost the impact of these investments,” he said.

As a joint South African–German project funded by the BMBF and shaped by the inputs of more than 50 scientists in the two countries, GreenQUEST strengthens the relationship between the two nations.

“The GreenQUEST project will strengthen existing and enable new partnerships between South Africa and Germany. It will also contribute to establishing a lasting strategic alliance in a crucial research area within the German and South African governments’ National Hydrogen Strategy frameworks,” added Sontheimer.

In the same vein, Professor Dr Döring pointed out that the cooperative approach driving GreenQUEST has the potential to positively impact communities not only on the African continent, but also around the world.

Project partners

The GreenQUEST project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The consortium partners include UCT’s Catalysis Institute, Energy Systems Research Group and African Climate Development Initiative, and the UCT Graduate School of Business; Nelson Mandela University; the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; Hydrogen Energy Applications in South Africa; the Southern African Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land Management (Namibia); and the Helmholtz Zentrum Berlin and Forschungs Zentrum Jülich in Germany. Sasol (South Africa) and SHV Energy (UK/Germany) are two large industrial associates of the project.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.