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Turning grass and trees into the fuel of the future


Brigid Veale
21 August 2008
As pressure mounts across the world to find new sources of fuel, researchers at Southern Cross University believe the answer lies in Australia’s very own eucalypts and native grasses.

A new BioEnergy Research Institute (BERI), established at Southern Cross University, is developing ‘second generation’ sources of biofuels using non-food crops. The University will be hosting a Native Species BioEnergy Crops workshop in Ballina tomorrow (August 22).

Unlike corn and sugar cane, which are providing the source for the first generation of biofuels, such as ethanol, these new plant sources will have a much lower carbon footprint and much greater economic benefit.

Professor Robert Henry, director of BERI and a recognised world leader in plant genetics research, said there was international interest in the development of these non-food plants for biofuels.

“The biofuels that exist at the moment are currently only marginally ahead of oil in terms of their carbon footprint. Turning food into fuel also has the potential to put upward pressure on food prices and threaten world food security,” Professor Henry said.

“What we are looking at is non-food biomass, such as eucalypts and native grasses. We won’t just be converting the sugar and starch into fuel, we can utilise all the carbon in the plant. That means there is a much higher yield of fuel – perhaps as much as 10 times. That in turn means lower greenhouse gas emissions per litre of fuel.”

The added benefit of using these plants is that they can be grown as annual crops in marginal areas which are becoming increasingly unsuitable for traditional food crops or grazing. Rural and regional towns would also benefit significantly as biofuel refineries need to be close to the fuel source.

“There is international interest because we have a lot of marginal areas in Australia which could be utilised,” he said.

“We see the social and environmental drivers as being overwhelming, but there are economic drivers as well. This will inject new employment into regional and rural areas which have been in decline.

“Australia has the opportunity to become a significant player in the emerging low carbon economy by securing a stake in the global biofuels and biofeedstocks technology market.”

Southern Cross University is already working closely with research centres funded by the United States Department of Energy, which has supported a $600 million biofuels research program.

“The United States has invested large sums of money in developing new technology for the refining process. We have got the experience in biomass development so it is a perfect match,” Professor Henry said.

Southern Cross University will be hosting a Native Species BioEnergy Crops workshop in Ballina on August 22. It will be attended by researchers from across Australia including the CSIRO, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Department of Environment and Conservation WA and NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Photo opportunity: workshop participants will be touring the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics laboratory and facilities, Lismore campus, on Thursday, August 21, at 2pm.

Photo: Professor Robert Henry.