Featured image above: Associate Professor Ian O’Hara at the Mackay Biocommodities Pilot Plant. He is pictured inside the plant with the giant vats used for fermentation. Credit: QUT Marketing and Communication/Erika Fish
Associate Professor Ian O’Hara, principal research scientist at QUT’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities (CTCB), says we are facing big challenges: the world needs to produce 70% more food and 50% more energy by 2050, while reducing carbon emissions.
At the same time, says O’Hara, there are opportunities to add value to existing agricultural products. “Waste products from agriculture, for example, can contribute to biofuel production.”
QUT funded a study in 2014 examining the potential value of a tropical biorefinery in Queensland. It assessed seven biorefinery opportunities across northeast Queensland, including in the sorghum-growing areas around the Darling Downs and the sugarcane-growing areas around Mackay and Cairns.
O’Hara says they mainly focused on existing agricultural areas, taking the residues from these to create new high-value products.
But he sees more opportunity as infrastructure across north Queensland continues to develop.
The study found the establishment of a biorefinery industry in Queensland would increase gross state product by $1.8 million per year and contribute up to 6500 new jobs.
“It’s an industry that contributes future jobs in regional Queensland – and by extension, opportunities for Australia,” O’Hara says.
The biorefineries can produce a range of products in addition to biofuels. These include bio-based chemicals such as ethanol, butanol and succinic acid, and bio-plastics and bio-composites – materials made from renewable components like fibreboard.
O’Hara says policy settings are required to put Queensland and Australia on the investment map as good destinations.
“We need strong collaboration between research, industry and government to ensure we’re working together to create opportunities.”
The CTCB has a number of international and Australian partners. The most recent of these is Japanese brewer Asahi Group Holdings, who CTCB are partnering with to develop a new fermentation technology that will allow greater volumes of sugar and ethanol to be produced from sugarcane.
“The biofuels industry is developing rapidly, and we need to ensure that Queensland and Australia have the opportunity to participate in this growing industry,” says O’Hara.
– Laura Boness