A research breakthrough has made Australia one step closer to being able to manufacture sustainable biofuel and other valuable products from sugarcane.
Researchers in Queensland have accelerated the process that converts sugarcane into the chemical isobutanol which is used to manufacture aviation fuel, plastics, rubbers, solvents, paints and cosmetics.
“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,” said Gary Schenck, a professor at the University of Queensland.
“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.”
Professor Schenck also said that the sped-up process makes manufacturing isobutanol a more financially viable proposition, and the range of potential end uses will encourage investment in the sector.
In addition to providing an alternative market to sugar cane growers, a significant benefactor of the technology will be the Australian aviation industry which currently relies on imported sustainable aviation fuel. Supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 and the Ukraine war highlighted Australia’s reliance on imported fuels, causing the industry to look for alternative options.
Co-researcher Professor Damien Hines said the emerging industry would spark conversations around the use of sugar as a fuel versus a food source, but developing a sustainable, domestic industry was an attractive proposition.
“Because sovereignty comes into it, the governments are very keen on having an industry established,” he said.
“There’s a lot of interest in making sure that we’re developing a sector that has legs and lasts.”
Mackay sugarcane grower Kevin Borg said that while an alternative market was welcome, growers will continue to sell their crops to the highest bidder.
“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.”
The breakthrough comes at the same time as the Queensland government announced the expansion of a manufacturing plant that converts sugarcane waste into bi-products including biofuel.
“The Palaszczuk government has committed funds from our industry partnership program to expand the pilot plant in partnership with QUT [Queensland University of Technology],” said Deputy Premier Stephen Miles.
“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.”