Researchers make breakthrough in turning sugar cane to aircraft fuel
18 January 2023, New Delhi: Queensland researchers say making sustainable fuels, cosmetics, solvents, and paints in Australia is a step closer after a breakthrough that allows them to quickly convert sugar cane into a renewable chemical.
While it could also help secure a domestic supply of strategic resources like aviation fuel, experts said more incentives were needed to get production off the ground.
It comes as the Queensland government announced an expansion of a pilot plant that converts biomass from a sugar mill into bioproducts in Mackay.
Reducing Reliance On Imports
University of Queensland professor Damien Hines said Australia did not currently produce sustainable aviation fuels, which had to be brought in from overseas.
But he said the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical factors like the war in Ukraine had exposed supply chain vulnerabilities that had created greater demand.
Professor Hines said while domestic production could provide new markets for cane farmers, other crops such as sorghum and corn would also be needed. “There’s a trade-off between food and energy in terms of the sugar,” he said.
“Because sovereignty comes into it, the governments are very keen on having an industry established.
“There’s a lot of interest in making sure that we’re developing a sector that has legs and lasts.”
Colleague Professor Gary Schenck said the breakthrough involved turning sugar cane into isobutanol — a chemical used in aviation fuel, plastics, and rubbers — more quickly.
“Rather than taking a yeast cell or a bacterial cell, we basically take these few biocatalysts that we need from these organisms to turn something like sugar into something like a biofuel,” he said.
“So that requires far smaller components … it allows you to actually be far more specific and also get much higher yields in sort of getting the product you want.”
They say the new method accelerated a step of the process, making it more financially viable. The versatility of the chemical also added to the economic incentive to invest in production, Professor Hines said.
“Isobutanol is a wonderful platform for cosmetics, for nutraceuticals, for solvents, paints … so you can actually establish a number of other co-production industries.”
He said having sustainable fuels for the 2032 Olympics in Queensland was another incentive, but building plants was expensive and would take time.
Mackay Pilot Project Expands
Deputy Premier Stephen Miles said a Mackay pilot plant that converted biomass from a sugar mill into bioproducts, including biofuels, would be expanded.
“The Palaszczuk government has committed funds from our industry partnership program to expand the pilot plant in partnership with QUT [Queensland University of Technology],” Mr Miles said.
“This is a pilot plant that takes biomass and turns it into high-value products like biofuels, green chemicals, and bioproducts.
“The opportunities for Mackay and the wider region going into the future are enormous, as the entire world is looking to green products produced using biomass.”
Canegrowers Mackay chairman Kevin Borg welcomed more government investment in developing renewable industries using sugar, but said while sugar prices were strong most producers would continue in traditional markets. “I think it’s everybody’s view that sugar would still be the mainstay of the industry,” he said. “For 40, 50 years, as long as I’ve been in the industry, we have talked about value-adding and the problem has been that we haven’t had government support behind those projects, thus they fell over”[But now] we’ve got government support and we’ve got a real need to develop food, fibre and renewable fuels.”
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