CSIRO takes the lead

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Clean Energy -

IF sec­ond- gen­er­a­tion bio­fu­els are the fu­ture of the in­dus­try in Aus­tralia, then the CSIRO Sus­tain­able Ecosys­tems re­search unit in Can­berra might be where that fu­ture will take root. A num­ber of re­search projects at the Gun­gahlin cen­tre are look­ing into the fea­si­bil­ity of turn­ing or­ganic waste into fuel, and the use of mi­croal­gae as a feed­stock for biodiesel.

Re­searcher Deb­o­rah O’Con­nell says: ‘‘ There’s a whole lot of new pro­cesses com­ing on stream and those are sec­ond gen­er­a­tion. Sec­ond gen­er­a­tion means it has been demon­strated in a lab­o­ra­tory that the process is pos­si­ble, but it hasn’t yet been com­mer­cialised. The big thing that’s loom­ing in that sphere is mi­croal­gae.’’

Also, a na­tion­wide project is map­ping how much or­ganic waste there is in the coun­try, where it is, and whether it is con­cen­trated in any lo­ca­tion. A sec­ond phase will study the lo­gis­tics of mov­ing this waste eco­nom­i­cally to pro­cess­ing sites. ‘‘ We have great po­ten­tial but we don’t know what that po­ten­tial is,’’ says O’Con­nell.

Most of the new tech­nolo­gies fo­cus on us­ing lig­no­cel­lu­lose, the woody or fi­brous part of a plant, and turn­ing that into fuel us­ing a ther­mo­chem­i­cal process in­volv­ing the break­ing- down work of enzymes and fungi. ( An­other re­search project is a screen­ing of Aus­tralia’s mi­cro­bial and en­zyme li­braries.)

‘‘ Lig­no­cel­lu­lose is the non- food part of the plant,’’ O’Con­nell says. All sorts of waste can be used in the process: agri­cul­tural and forestry residues, sawmill residues, ‘‘ or any ur­ban or or­ganic waste’’.

Even grass is com­ing into the pic­ture. Grow­ing grass for fuel might mean that land too mar­ginal for farm­ing, but which can still sup­port grasses, might be use­ful in fuel pro­duc­tion. O’Con­nell says: ‘‘ Over­seas re­search shows that less pro­duc­tive agri­cul­tural land can pro­duce ethanol from grasses with pretty good en­ergy in­put- toout­put ra­tios.

‘‘ There’s a lot of de­bate cur­rently about corn ( crops to pro­duce ethanol). A lot of wa­ter and nitro­gen goes in, but not a lot ( of fuel) comes out. So if you can grow grass in low­pro­duc­tion land, the value adding is high.’’

O’Con­nell says that first- gen­er­a­tion meth­ods of mak­ing bio­fu­els, from starch and sug­ars from flour and sugar milling, has been a good base for the Aus­tralian in­dus­try: ‘‘ It is an im­por­tant first step in the tran­si­tion away from oil.’’

The be­lief at the CSIRO is that fu­ture fu­els will be a mix. ‘‘ There’s prob­a­bly not go­ing to be just one way to go,’’ O’Con­nell says.

Bren­dan O’Keefe

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