Biofuels offer hope for hard-to-decarbonise sectors

Australian biotechnology company Licella invented and developed the world’s leading hydrothermal liquefaction technology: using hot pressurised water to transform waste biomass into biocrude which can then be upgraded to sustainable aviation fuel and renewable biodiesel. “Our technology unlocks the vast potential of the resources we have in Australia,” says Andrea Polson, Licella general manager stakeholder engagement and communications, adding that Queensland alone produces 17 million tonnes a year of non-food biomass residue, such as sugarcane trash, wheat-straw, forestry byproducts and construction and demolition woody waste. Once destined for landfill, this waste can now be converted into biocrude.

Biofuels will play a significant role in Australia’s transition to renewable energy, addressing the limitations of the electrification provided by solar and wind power. Studies suggest bioenergy – renewable energy derived from plant and animal waste – could contribute up to 20 per cent of Australia’s total energy consumption by 2050.

Experts warn it is important to ensure advanced biofuels are made from non-food biomass such as crop residues to avoid competition with food production.

Licella and Canadian partner Canfor, one of the world’s largest sustainable lumber, pulp and paper companies, have joined forces to establish a commercial-scale biocrude oil plant which is scheduled to begin production later this year, converting pulp mill wood waste into as many as 50,000 barrels of oil a year at a facility in Canada.

Licella also has yet-to-be announced biocrude facilities now under development in Australia and scheduled to begin operations in coming years.

According to an Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) report, advanced biofuels are compatible with existing fuel infrastructure, and Australia’s agriculture, forestry and engineering experience provides a solid foundation for a thriving biofuels industry. A national reliance on air travel, long-distance road freight, and rail and marine freight, are likely to contribute to demand for these lower emissions biofuels.

Ensuring biofuel production is optimally sustainable needs careful management to avoid land degradation, water use issues, and impacts on biodiversity, and the development of a large-scale biofuel industry requires significant investment in research, production facilities and infrastructure.

Shahana McKenzie, CEO of industry association Bioenergy Australia, says Australia already has two bioethanol production plants and three biodiesel production facilities. The national focus is now on producing biofuels for the most difficult to decarbonise sectors such as shipping, heavy haulage and aviation and Australia.

“Recent modelling suggests Australia has enough feedstock to produce 60 per cent of our aviation fuel demand by 2025 and 90 per cent by 2050,” she says.

Australia’s aviation industry accounts for roughly 1 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and is viewed as a hard to abate sector. Most of these emissions are from medium to long haul flights.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) provides funding and research support for biofuels projects, and last year launched a $30m Sustainable Aviation Fuel Funding Initiative to support the development of aviation biofuels made from renewable feedstocks. Applications are now being assessed.

Bioethanol can be upgraded via rapidly maturing ethanol-to-jet processes to make sustainable aviation fuel. A privately-owned Australian biotech company, MicroBioGen, has shown how a low-carbon bioethanol can be produced from non-food material – including woody waste – using yeast. These yeast products, sold through a partner company, Novonesis, are now widely used in North America, producing millions of litres of ethanol a year.

“Yeast is really good at converting sugars to ethanol, and then the ethanol can be used directly as a fuel or it can be converted for aviation,” says MicroBioGen CEO Geoff Bell, adding that the sugars can be waste products such as forestry thinnings or crop residues.

“We specialise in more efficiently converting those sugars into alcohol.”

The Australian