CSIRO takes the lead
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.