Aussies announce viable technology to turn plant and paper scrap into fuel
by Craig Weatherby
Today, Australian researchers announced they've developed a new chemical process to turn fibrous plant waste into a viable bio-fuel, economically.
The process uses low-value, high-cellulose-content waste such as forest thinnings, crop residues, waste paper and garden waste, significant amounts of which are now burned or dumped in landfills.
The Australians may have achieved the holy grail of bio-fuel hopes, which is to make gasoline and diesel substitutes from cheap, renewable, non-food plant matter.
If the technology proves as practical as claimed, it would avoid the barriers that undermine the economic and social viability of biofuels generated from grains, corn, and sugarcane. (For more on that topic, see “Biofuels' Downsides Prompt Europeans to Backpedal” and “Corn-Based Fuel Fares Poorly in New Analysis.”)
The technology, called Furafuel, was developed by scientists from Monash University and Australia's national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).
The plant wastes being targeted for conversion into biofuels contain fibrous lignocellulose, which is increasingly favored as a raw material for bio-fuels.
Lignocellulose is both renewable and, according to the CSIRO statement, “potentially greenhouse gas neutral”. It is predominantly found in trees and is made up of cellulose; lignin—a natural, plastic-like carbohydrate polymer—and hemicellulose.
CSIRO scientists say that their “bio-crude” oil can be used to produce high value chemicals and biofuels, including replacement fuels for both gasoline and diesel.
Steven Loffler, Ph.D. of CSIRO Forest Biosciences stressed two points in the agency's press release (CSIRO 2008):
- “By making changes to the chemical process, we've been able to create a concentrated bio-crude which is much more stable than that achieved elsewhere in the world.”
- “This makes it practical and economical to produce bio-crude in local areas for transport to a central refinery, overcoming the high costs and greenhouse gas emissions otherwise involved in transporting bulky green wastes over long distances.”
It has not been economically feasible to use plant wastes, such as forest thinnings and straw, to make biofuels and eco-friendly chemicals, because of the high cost of trucking the bulky waste hundreds of miles for processing.
There have been attempts in the past, but the resulting bio-oil has been unstable and turned into bitumen within a few weeks.
The Furafuel process creates a stable “bio-crude” that can be shipped to bio-fuel refineries, just as crude oil is carried to conventional petrochemical refineries.
The liquid can then be converted either into fuel replacements – gasoline and diesel substitutes or ethanol – or, using current technology, into benign, value-added polymers and industrial chemicals.
Once final laboratory trials are completed, CSIRO and Monash University intend to apply for a patent on the Furafuel process.
- Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). Dr Steven Loffler: turning timber residues into biofuels. Accessed online February 4, 2008 at http://www.csiro.au/people/Steven.Loffler.html
- Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). Bio-crude turns cheap waste into valuable fuel. Accessed online February 4, 2008 at http://www.csiro.au/news/ValuableFuel.html