Waste is a big problem for agriculture. After every harvest each crop leaves behind a residual biomass which often remains unused. If some of this waste material could be re-purposed, it would make farms more efficient and profitable, and reduce their negative environmental impacts. Modern chemical science has the potential to turn what is currently trash into treasure by transforming agricultural residues into a range of valuable commodities.
Realising this potential is difficult. Although many technologies have been developed to extract value from waste agricultural biomass, researchers are yet to develop a commercially viable system. Most methods convert waste biomass into liquid fuel (ethanol) for energy or transport. Those processes produce their own waste, and are often not efficient enough to be profitable without subsidy.
Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) are leading an Australian team looking to develop a solution. They aim to develop a commercially viable, zero-waste bio-refinery which will transform agricultural waste into bioplastics, resins, catalysts, pharmaceutical precursors, and energy.
The Australia-India Strategic Research Fund supported this Australian initiative and helped them to team up with a group of Indian partners lead by the Institute of Chemical Technology. Both countries bring complementary strengths to the effort. India has several commercial scale bio-energy plants, built or under construction, as well as deep expertise in biomass to ethanol production processes. Australia brings its own pilot plants, economic modelling, bio-engineering and leading edge supercritical fractionation technology. AISRF funding has been critical, supporting the purchase of new equipment, the upscaling of pilot plants, and the recruitment and retention of expert staff.
To date, the teams have developed simple methods to grade incoming biomass to allow optimal processing, engineered yeast and algae to treat the bio refinery’s liquid waste streams, and optimised the ethanol production processes to improve output and reduce waste. They have also developed techniques using QUT’s supercritical liquefaction technology to extract high value chemical compounds normally produced during processing. They have validated their findings on a range of biomass feedstocks common in India and Australia. These technologies are now being integrated into a zero-waste bio‑refinery concept which could be deployed in India or Australia.
The teams are examining opportunities for future collaboration and deployment of their systems. The combination of the Australian and Indian teams’ efforts could transform agriculture in Australia and India, reduce waste, and create valuable fuels and chemicals.
Australian Team Leader:
Professor William Doherty, Queensland University of Technology
Indian Team Leader:
Professor Arvind Lali, Institute of Chemical Technology