Biofuels – Something Happening Here

I attended the Biofuels Summit in Brisbane on 28-31 August 2011. I have to say it was an eye-opener as to the breadth and depth of both the R&D and commercialisation work that I going on in Australia and the rest of the world in the biofuels area.

The ‘face’ of biofuels over the last few years has been the fermentation of bio-ethanol from cereal (food) sources. However, because of the ‘food vs fuel’ debate on land use, this has moved on to new and interesting technology fields – sometimes called ‘second generation’ biofuels.

While I was struck by the inroads bio-fuels have already made into the automotive fuel chain, it seems that the level of use of biofuels could be a lot higher than it is. There were a number of perceptions that are holding back biofuels at the moment, including apparently limited refuelling facilities, the perceived risk of voided engine warranties, compromised emissions rating, limited fuel tank (range) capacity, need for engine modifications, need for mechanic training. These are some of the perceptual challenges for the biofuel industry.

The solution in Brazil is to make it illegal to sell any car that cannot run on ethanol!

Nevertheless, some transport companies are embracing biofuels. Finemores Transport are using biodiesel from Biodiesel Producers P/L in Wodonga, who use tallow as a feedstock. They have used more than 20 million litres of B20 biodiesel since 2008 without problems.

Boeing are working on sustainable biofuels from non-food sources to replace fossil jet fuels.

The Summit showcased a number of companies that have some interesting technologies in development:

  • Lanzatech are a New Zealand based technology company who have developed a technology to convert steel-making
    waste gas to biofuel. They have a Chinese joint venture planning to make >30 million gallons of ethanol per yr by 2013. Not surprisingly, the see their patent and IP portfolio as a key strength.
  • Zeachem is a US based biomass processor using biochemical treatment to produce ethanol, which is based on the digestive organisms of termites.
  • Licella is an Australian company using a new technology to produce high energy density bio-crude in one pass. They are working with Norske Skog to build the largest pilot facility in the Southern Hemisphere to process biomass to biofuels.
  • Aurora Algae are based in WA and were founded at UC Berkeley. They have a pilot facility near Karratha WA for harvesting biofuels from algae, while simultaneously producing dietary Omega-3 EPA fatty acids. To date, they have filed 39 patents in low cost cultivation/harvesting/extraction/conversion of algae biofuels.
  • Microbiogen are using their expertise in yeast to create technology for making sustainable next generation
    biofuels. They have developed a yeast strain that can metabolize xylose, previously thought to be impossible. Microbiogen argue that even second generation biofuels will still ‘crowd out’ food production. Their technology
    can allow this to be avoided.

Interestingly (ominously) there were a couple of representatives from the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) attending the summit. They told me they always take an interest in emerging markets, and the biofuel industry is certainly emerging!

by Adam Hyland

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