Cellulose: from paper planes to powering jet planes

Botanical Congress, Media releases

30% of US transport fuelled by plants by 2030

The man who heads up the world’s largest integrated bioenergy research institute is pretty confident the US will meet its target of producing 30 per cent of its transport fuels from plants by the year 2030. And Australia is helping them do it.

In 2013, the oil company BP is set to open one of America’s first commercial cellulosic  biofuel facilities  and several other companies, including DuPont are also rushing to build facilities, says Professor Chris Somerville, the director of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois. Unlike biofuels made from cornstarch or sugar, cellulosic fuels are made from the cellulose-rich body of plants which is not digested by humans.

He is in Australia to present a keynote address on how plants make cellulose at the XVIII International Botanical Congress in Melbourne today. But while here, he is also extending collaborations with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Cell Walls at the Universities of Melbourne, Adelaide, and Queensland.

“The ARC Centre has expertise in studying carbohydrates that you don’t get anywhere else in the world,” Prof Somerville says. “The agreement allows it to plug into an emerging field worldwide. The future source of our fuels is a world problem which demands a world solution.”

Under the agreement, the US Institute will gain access to the biological and technical expertise of the Centre, and the Centre will gain access to expertise and facilities at the EBI, including a team of American economists and modellers who will assess Australia’s natural resources and infrastructure capacity for producing biofuels.

The strategy for the cellulosic biofuel industry is initially to mostly use the waste products, such as stover, straw and bagasse generated by the production of food crops. But it will rapidly switch to dedicated fuel crops grown on marginal agricultural land under-utilised at present. The current industrial process involves bathing the plant residues in acid and then breaking down the cellulose fibres using enzymes for eventual digestion and production of fuel by microorganisms.

Somerville and his Australian colleague Professor Tony Bacic, deputy director of the Centre, hope that future research will not only be able to fine tune this process and increase its efficiency, but also develop a similar process to break down other carbohydrate components not currently used, but which comprise about 30 per cent of the plant residue.

The two researchers are in no doubt of the capacity of biofuels to play a significant role in satisfying the world’s future energy needs. “At present Brazil produces about 40 per cent of its transport fuels from sugarcane grown on about 4 million hectares,” Prof Somerville says. “They are planning to expand that to 64 million hectares and eventually to use the bagasse in addition to the sugar. That’s why they will become the Saudi Arabia of cellulosic fuels.”

For more information:  call Niall Byrne on 0417 131 977, niall@scienceinpublic.com.au
or AJ Epstein on 0433 339 141 or email aj@scienceinpublic.com.au.