A new fuel technology to convert harvested crops and other plant waste into biofuel and green chemical products is being developed with $11.9 million in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).
The new technology uses ‘strong acid’ to convert feedstock into a sugar solution that is fermented into ethanol and other products.
The process can convert material from waste streams such as wheat straw, cotton stubble, sugar cane bagasse and forest material.
The University of Newcastle, Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources, Muswellbrook Shire Council and Ethanol Technologies (Ethtec) are collaborating to build a demonstration facility at Muswellbrook.
Ethanol accounts for about 1 per cent of Australia’s fuel consumption but the proponents are hoping the commercialisation of the technology will lead to increased domestic consumption and exports of Australian product.
Conjoint lecturer and Ethtec senior biotechnologist, Dr Geoff Doherty, said the project is aimed at proving commercial capability of the technology.
“We know you can take waste streams, convert them into sugars and then turn those sugars into biofuels or green chemicals, but it’s got to be competitive with crude oil products,’ Dr Doherty said.
“The overarching benefit of this technology will revolutionise agribusiness because farmers will be able to continue to grow crops, sell the valuable part into the food market and have a second market for the leftover waste stream.”
Professor Peter Lewis from the School of Environmental and Life Sciences will contribute to the process to refine the fermentation to convert sugars into energy products.
“With respect to the use of plant waste material, relatively little is known about how that waste can be efficiently used for the production of valuable products,” Prof. Lewis said.
The process can reduce greenhouse emissions that come from a range of plant-based waste and could work in medium to large-scale facilities all over the world, he said.
Dr Doherty said increased ethanol fuel would reduce carbon emissions, compared to petroleum products, and claimed the new waste product would encourage land rehabilitation, such as at mine sites of planting trees in high salinity soils.
“At the moment, most farmers don’t do it because it’s worth nothing and takes their fields out of action for many years. This process will keep their land productive while also being remediated,” .
Research on the project will be carried out in phases over the next three to five years and will be tested at a demonstration facility based in Muswellbrook.
This new facility will be able to process two dry tonnes of biomass a day.