A push into green molecules by South African energy leader Sasol

When Emerald announced that we won an exclusive investment mandate from South African energy and chemicals giant Sasol, it signified our dedication to applying cutting-edge innovation to drive sustainability in every corner of the globe. As we commemorate Earth Day—which lands two-months after our Sasol partnership—we look forward to further deepening our network across the developed and developing world alike.

In this interview, Emerald partner Christoph Frei discusses the significance of the Sasol investment and what it heralds for the future of “green molecules”—a major pillar of the global energy transition.

What makes Sasol’s story unique?

If you look at Sasol’s background, the company emerged out of the sanctions placed on South Africa during the apartheid period. The country wasn’t allowed to import oil, so instead it leveraged a resource it did have in abundance: coal. It became a master of a chemical process called Fischer-Tropsch (FT), which was originally invented in the 1920s to synthesize liquid fuel from any form of carbon, including solid sources like coal. If South Africa wanted to have enough gasoline to power its automobiles and whatnot, it had to manufacture it from coal via FT. Sasol was essentially forced to become an expert in this technology by dint of historical necessity.

Fortunately, FT can also be used to produce a range of clean fuels, including sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Today, Sasol is perfectly positioned as a technology company to play a key role in products like SAF and other green molecules. That’s the beauty of their story: they have always been focused on technology needed to get the right molecules, regardless of starting point. That is the key role they want to play going forward, but with a green tinge.

Can you explain FT in more detail?

Traditionally you would take a carbon source like coal, heat it to a very high temperature and mix it with water vapor. This creates a gas that you run through FT in order to generate a liquid, which could be SAF, diesel, synthetic kerosene, etc. The key ingredients are hydrogen and carbon, mixed together in the right proportions to create a bespoke energy-carrying molecule for the application at hand.

Given the shift away from coal, what are the most promising green sources of carbon for FT?

 Biomass is a big one, particularly waste biomass—this is where most SAF today comes from. It could really come from anything though—people are increasingly looking at carbon captured from industrial sources or directly from the air. Burning these “synfuels”, as we call them, emits CO2, but because the input is carbon that has been pulled from the atmosphere or locked up in plant cells, it is essentially net-neutral for the climate. It is certainly better than business-as-usual for sectors like aviation, which as we know makes up a growing share of global greenhouse gas emissions.

How is Sasol looking to apply emergent technologies alongside its FT expertise?

 To spearhead its transition, Sasol created an entirely new business unit—ecoFT—with a license to disrupt the green molecules arena. It has already launched a partnership with Mexican cement giant CEMEX to produce SAF from carbon captured from one of CEMEX’s plants in Germany. Through these kinds of energy innovations, Sasol intends to position itself aggressively in the clean and green molecules space.

Sasol is a South African company, but its footprint is global in scope. How do you view Sasol’s prospects in the worldwide market for green molecules?

There are obviously much bigger players in this space, but Sasol’s trump card lies in its status as a force for transformation in the developing world. The company can work across emerging markets, combining natural cultural affinity with strong technology expertise and experience.

At the same time, the Germany pilot demonstrates that it has ambitions for Europe, while it also boasts a significant presence in chemicals in North America. So there’s quite a bit of opportunity for them globally, across a range of contexts.

How do you view Emerald’s role specifically?

This is our first partner in Africa and demonstrates our commitment to industrial transformation on a worldwide scale. The specific value we bring is twofold: one, to support Sasol source the most promising investments in the areas that will catapult its next stages of de-fossilized growth. This includes startups working on breakthroughs in processing biomass, hydrogen electrolysis, carbon capture and utilization, and so on.

The second value is our network, both with experts in the scientific and technical community, as well as with other limited partners—a group that includes some of the biggest energy, technology and chemicals companies in the world, such as Chevron, ABB and SABIC. We put a lot of time and effort into cultivating these relationships, which represent an innovation ecosystem that comes to life during our sprints, at our biannual Investor Forum and our annual Venture Fair, among other venues. It’s always gratifying to see our partners link up with each other on projects or co-investments, or even just to share knowledge and learnings.