Australian pilot biorefinery now under construction

By Matt Thompson | January 25, 2019

According to Dr. Geoff Doherty, senior biotechnologist at Ethanol Technologies (Ethtec), and conjoint lecturer at the University of Newcastle in Australia, the country’s biofuels industry is a young one. But it’s growing, thanks in part to a pilot biorefinery which is now under construction in the country’s Hunter region.

The plant is a collaboration between the University of Newcastle’s Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources and Ethtec, and construction started earlier this month. Doherty said the facility will take about 12 to 15 months to complete. Installing and preparing the equipment will take another 12 months. “So, we’re hoping within two and a half years, we’ll have the first experimental runs happening,” he said.

The pilot plant will focus on second-generation biofuel production, using feedstocks like sugar cane bagasse, wheat straw and forestry waste. “We have very little biofuels being produced here compared to the capacity we have to produce them,” Doherty says. “We have a whole lot of underutilized biomass resources from agriculture and forestry sectors, so we think this facility will enable researchers to transition their bench-style research into pilot-style research, which is an essential step in the commercialization pathway.”

Doherty said Ethtec is aware of the challenges producers have faced when producing cellulosic ethanol and second-generation biofuels from crop residue on a commercial scale. However, the methods they are testing differ from what’s currently being done in the United States, he said. The main difference is that Ethtec does not use enzymes during production. “Our approach, essentially, is more of a sledge hammer approach. We hit it with strong acid, but the key difference is that we can recover and recycle that acid so it’s not actually contributing to the process,” he said, adding that the process allows for the use different types feedstocks. “We can use any type of feedstock, as long as we granulate it to a certain size and dry it to a certain moisture content,” he said. “Pretty much all feedstocks behave the same once you get it into those conditions. And that’s a key difference between the enzymatic approach where those enzymes are typically tailored for a certain feedstock.”

Australia imports much of its petroleum, so Doherty said the demonstration plant is a step toward the country’s energy independence. “We think in the medium-term, sort of in that 10 to 15 years when these types of technologies start coming online and we’re starting to produce significant volumes of locally produced biofuels, it’ll certainly assist in that very dangerous liquid fuel security situation we find ourselves in,” he said.

The Australian ethanol industry faces many of the same public perceptions that exist in the U.S., according to Doherty. “A lot of it’s died down, but … 10, 15 years ago, there was a lot of talk about the damage ethanol can do to engines and the corrosiveness of ethanol petrol blends and those sort of things,” he said, adding the Australian biofuels industry is controlled by just one company. “I think the resistance to biofuels in this country will reduce once there’s a bit more public information about the sustainability of it, first of all, and reducing that monopoly, having more players in the market, and seeing it as a true competitive industry,” he said.