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Turning sugar cane waste into biojet fuel: how a biorefinery is propelling Queensland into the future

Turning sugar cane waste into biojet fuel: how a biorefinery is propelling Queensland into the future

If you’ve flown internationally in recent years, you may have found yourself on a plane powered by a biofuel blend. The biofuel propelling you through the air could even have been made from an organic crop like Queensland sugar cane.

As global demand for cleaner fuels grows, Queensland is seizing the opportunity to secure more jobs and more of the supply chain in industries like biofuels. Transitioning some of our fuel sources to biofuels is beneficial for the environment, helps us meet decarbonisation goals, increases fuel security and creates jobs and opportunities for Queenslanders in the process.

Seeing this commitment, forward-thinking companies are also using this opportunity to produce biofuels right here in Queensland as a way of decarbonizing industries and transitioning them to more sustainable fuel sources.

Biofuels explained

Biofuels are renewable liquid fuels, usually bioethanol, biodiesel, renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuels, made out of renewable resources. Everything from wood offcuts, to sugarcane, used cooking oil or beef tallow and algae can be turned into biofuel.

In many instances, the organic matter used to make biofuels is waste material, like the leftover pulp from sugarcane processing. Other dedicated biomass and oilseed crops can be grown on degraded or marginal land to be turned into fuel. In Queensland, all commercially produced biofuel is currently produced from easily fermentable sugars from grain sorghum, used cooking oil and molasses from sugarcane processing. In the future, biofuels could come from food and garden organics currently going to landfill, the natural rubber content in off the road mining tyres, grease trap waste and/or construction and demolition waste.

Around the world, people are working to find the most sustainable and cost-effective ways to create biofuels. They’re balancing what’s going to be good for the environment with what can be easily farmed and looking for ways to use resources that already exist or can be sustainably produced.

Mercurius’s new Mackay-based pilot biorefinery

A new pilot biorefinery plant in Queensland has been built by Mercurius Australia in Mackay. It makes use of waste from one of the region’s most well-known crops, sugarcane, turning crop waste, bagasse, into renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel. The plant is based at Queensland University of Technology’s Renewable Biocommodities Pilot Plant .

Mercurius is using novel technology and is working with QUT to demonstrate the technology works at a pilot scale and identify commercial opportunities.

This new biorefinery is a significant step towards increasing Queensland’s onshore biofuel manufacturing capabilities. Attracting companies like Mercurius to Queensland paves the way for the creation of skilled jobs within the industry and improves Queensland’s fuel security.

Drop-in products

The renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel created through the plant are ‘drop-in’ products, meaning they can be used in existing engines. This saves costs and makes it easy to switch to the biofuel.

Carbon negative

Sugarcane uses carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis so it can grow. When the fuel made at the biorefinery is burned in an engine, it releases less carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere than it took to make it, which makes the fuel officially carbon negative.

The biorefinery can also convert into fuel other waste feedstocks like residuals from harvested corn, wheat, barley and rice straw, forestry residuals like sawdust and woodchips was well as construction, and recycled paper products like cardboard. These products that otherwise would have gone to waste can now help to power transport and supply chains.

Mercurius CEO Karl Seck says, “We’re really excited to have this pilot plant finally up and running. The plant has been years in the making. It’s great for Mercurius, great for Queensland and great for our partners like QUT.”

First of its kind

Professor Ian O'Hara, Queensland's Biofutures Industry Envoy and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, QUT, is part of the team studying how the plant and the technology it is using works. While biofuels are being created and used around the world, Mercurius is trying out new technology in the Mackay plant that could make production of biofuels more efficient.

"The pilot plant is a really important development in this technology,” says Professor O’Hara. “It allows the technology to move really truly from the lab towards a commercial scale.”

Biofuels powering the jobs and economy of the future

Through partnering on projects like the Mercurius pilot plant, the Queensland Government is backing Queensland’s strengths in the biofutures sector to improve fuel security and help the nation achieve energy independence. It’s possible for waste feedstock from Queensland to be shipped to biorefineries elsewhere in the country and world, but when we build infrastructure like biorefineries in Queensland, it gives our community the chance to be part of every step of the process. From farming and milling the sugar cane, to building and running the plant, managing exports of the biofuel and studying the process, the Mackay pilot plant has already provided many different opportunities for Queenslanders.

Professor O’Hara’s team is aware of the potential impact projects like the biorefinery can have for the local community.

“In Queensland, we get what these kinds of technologies can do for our economy, particularly our regional economies like those here in Mackay,” he says. “The support of the community has been fantastic. It’s an opportunity to grow the jobs of the future in low carbon industries that support our agricultural industries and create new opportunities for people of all sectors to come together for the future of the Queensland economy.”

The Mercurius biorefinery plant is one outcome of Queensland’s Biofutures 10-Year Roadmap and Action Plan, which was launched in 2016 to provide leadership to help the state leverage its strategic advantages and secure its share of the global bioproducts and services market.

Last updated: 14 Jun 2023