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Reaping benefits of agricultural waste

Australia’s $63 billion agriculture sector stands to benefit from a revolutionary fuel technology that will convert multiple agricultural waste streams into valuable biofuel and green chemical products for the first time.

In partnership with the University of Newcastle, Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources and Muswellbrook Shire Council, Ethanol Technologies (Ethtec) has received $11.9 million in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to establish a demonstration facility at Muswellbrook.

Led by a group of researchers including conjoint lecturer and Ethtec senior biotechnologist, Dr Geoff Doherty, the project will develop an environmentally sustainable process to produce biofuels and other renewable chemicals from crop and forestry wastes.

Currently farmers need to decide whether their crops are used for food or fuel production, as ethanol is produced from the valuable food portion, known as ‘first generation technology’.

Ethtec technology will eliminate the food versus fuel tension as the process will use the waste streams left behind once the food portion has been harvested from crops, known as ‘second generation technology’, which will also give farmers a second source of income.

The project will help create a commercially viable process for the country to tap into a $130 billion ethanol industry that currently only makes up approximately one per cent of Australia’s fuel consumption, and will provide a pathway to a sustainable export market for Australian produced ethanol.

Waste not, want not

Ethtec’s novel ‘strong acid’ technology will use feedstock waste streams such as wheat straw, cotton stubble, sugar cane bagasse and forest material left behind after the valuable food and fibre components have been harvested from crops and timber plantations.

“This project is about developing the engineering data behind the process to ensure it is commercially viable. 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.

“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 left-over waste stream.

“Creating a value for fibre will also incentivise land rehabilitation programs, such as mine rehabilitation and the planting of trees to remediate 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,” Dr Doherty explained.

Image: Dr Geoff Doherty

This story was first published in The Fence magazine.

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