Biofuels, a renewable source of energy from waste, have been around for two centuries, but an environmentally conscious shift from the transport sector is driving a resurgence.
Plant waste from agriculture and timber harvesting could be converted into high-density aviation fuel according to the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics in China.
The research, published in scientific journal Joule, comes at a time when international bodies and governments begin to invest more resources into the issue of organic waste streams, and provides an interesting case study for the future of the industry.
Scientists at the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics have converted cellulose, a polymer formed on plant cell walls, into a high density fuel that can be used as a wholesale replacement or an additive to improve the efficiency of other jet fuels.
While chain alkanes derived from cellulose such as branched octane, dodecane, and hexadecane have previously used for jet-fuel, researchers believe this is the first study to produce more complex polycycloalkane compounds that can be used as high-density aviation fuel.
Author of the study research scientist Ning Li said the new biofuel could be instrumental in helping aviation “go green.”
“Our biofuel is important for mitigating CO2 emissions because it is derived from biomass and has higher density (or volumetric heat values) compared with conventional aviation fuels.
“As we know, the utilisation of high-density aviation fuel can significantly increase the range and payload of aircraft without changing the volume of oil in the tank,” Li said.
Li and his team said the process’ cheap, abundant cellulose feedstock, fewer production steps, and lower energy cost and consumption mean it will soon be ready for commercial use applications.
Sawmill scraps and sawdust could soon be turned into renewable diesel and bitumen as a result of a $1.2 million feasibility study, funded by the Federal Government and Boral Limited.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has agreed to grant Boral with $500,000 towards the study, with Boral providing the remainder.
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The study will trial a mechanical catalytic conversion technology, developed by Spanish-based Global Ecofuel Solutions SL, along with initial design works for the full-scale plant, exploration of the regulatory challenges and development of the business case.
Boral will explore the technical and financial viability of establishing a biorefinery using this technology near its Herons Creek hardwood sawmill, near Port Macquarie, NSW.
If successful, the proposed biorefinery would cost around $50 million and could convert up to 50,000 tonnes of waste sawmill residue produces each year into transport grade diesel and renewable bitumen.
Sawmill residue, which includes sawdust, remnant woodchips, shavings and offcuts, is currently used for lower value uses such as landscaping and boiler fuel.
Boral consumes a large amount of diesel and bitumen, using around 100 million litres of diesel a year to operate its business in Australia. The company estimates the volume of timber residues should create around 16 million litres of diesel and 8000 tonnes of bitumen.
Boral Building Products Executive General Manager Wayne Manners said if the study was successful, the diesel and bitumen produced at the potential new biorefinery could eventually account for up to 15 per cent of Boral’s annual needs.
“The application of this technology has the potential to transform the way we use low value hardwood sawmill residues into a resource that could be highly valuable, not just to Boral, but to the industry more generally,” he said.
ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said the project further shows that big businesses are increasingly moving towards renewable energy solutions.
“If this ground-breaking technology is successful, we hope to see a transition to similar biorefineries by other companies which have a waste stream in forestry or agriculture,” Mr Frischknecht said.
“The transport sector is a significant user of energy in Australia, with liquid fuels a key long-term energy source for heavy-vehicle road and air transport since they cannot readily be electrified.
“Bioenergy comprises a growing proportion of Australia’s energy mix, and this new technology could see residue from the production process be used to reduce Boral’s reliance on diesel and bitumen derived from fossil fuels,” he said.
A Queensland biofuels plant is researching whether they can convert plastic, tyres and an invasive weed into diesel and energy.
The Southern Oil plant currently has been able to turn softwood plantation waste and macadamia nut shells into a renewable fuel source.
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Environment and Science Minister Leeanne Enoch said the facility had so far used four waste-based products and refined it into fuel, and that another seven waste products would be tested.
“This project is amazing, and is leading the way to a sustainable fuel future for Queensland,” Ms Enoch said.
“Now they are going test another seven waste-based products, and woody material from an invasive plant known as the prickly acacia – also a Weed of National Significance – has been prioritised as the next feedstock to be refined into saleable kerosene and diesel products,” she said.
“Other products the Plant are planning to convert into renewable diesel and energy include plastics, wood waste and tyres.”
Laboratory research has begun to refine the renewable crude into jet fuels and lubricants.
Queensland’s Biofuture Envoy Professor Ian O’Hara complemented Southern Oil on the technical advancements taking place.
“To be able to produce renewable biocrude generated from different waste streams, and then apply pilot scale distillation and hyrdotreatment on site to create a certified fuel is a great accomplishment,” Professor O’Hara said.
Southern Oil’s Managing Director Tim Rose said Queensland’s emerging renewable fuel industry was not just good for the environment but also good for Queensland’s economy – with significant benefits flowing through to regional Queensland.
“While we have invested heavily in a world class laboratory and cutting edge technology to produce a certified fuel, we have also invested heavily in independent economic modelling around the availability, aggregation and logistics of available waste streams in Queensland,” he said.
“We intend to establish regional hubs where the waste is generated, to produce our renewable crude. The crude will then be transported from across Queensland to the Gladstone Renewable Fuel Refinery.
“So new regional industries creating new jobs and new market opportunities. The numbers add up. It’s a viable and scalable business proposition.”
The average Londoner drinks 2.3 cups of coffee each day, producing more than 200,000 tonnes of waste a year, much of which ends in landfill. Those concerned about the environmental impact can now offset their carbon footprint in two ways by using the capital’s iconic red bus fleet.
A new initiative from British startup Bio-bean, with financial and technical help from energy giant Royal Dutch Shell and fuel blender Argent Energy, is extracting oil from old coffee beans to make biofuel that, from 20 November, is helping fuel London’s double-decker buses.
The project will supply 6,000 litres a year of the fuel, according to a report by the Independent.
Bio-bean founder Arthur Kay, whose company also makes solid fuel pellets from coffee waste, was quoted as saying partnerships with thousands of coffee shops across the United Kingdom provided the used coffee grounds.
“It’s got a high oil content – 20 per cent oil by weight in the waste coffee grounds – so it’s a really great thing to make biodiesel out of,” he told the Independent.
The waste is converted in the company’s Cambridgeshire factory and the oil blended with diesel fuel to make up 20 per cent of the finished biofuel.
Bio-bean, which was founded in 2013, plans to expand throughout the UK and eventually to continental Europe and the United States.
The company’s website states the UK produces 500,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds each year, which contain valuable compounds.
The use of the coffee-derived biodiesel in London’s bus fleet can make a significant and sustainable contribution to powering future transport systems, Bio-bean says.