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If you took any notice of the nay-sayers you’d believe that there’s no need for Australia to do anything about alternative fuels. The truth is quite different.
If you listen to the ‘shock jocks’ here or read some spin-twisted newspaper and website articles you could be led to believe that Australia is pioneering carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction. That, of course, is total rubbish, because the rest of the developed and developing world is well down the track of pursuing sustainable energy.
Whether Australia has a carbon tax or some other form of carbon pricing structure in the future doesn’t really matter in a larger world where alternative fuel technology is being pursued rapidly. However, if we don’t match global CO2 reduction targets we’ll be penalised when we trade. An example is the EEC’s aviation fuel policy that was implemented in January 2012. Aircraft using straight, non-renewable Jet A1 fuel incur increased landing fees, in contrast to aircraft using a mineral Jet A1 and renewable-fuel blend.
There’s also the not-insignificant issue of national security. Australia relies almost totally on imported diesel and aviation fuel. If the overseas oil taps get shut off we become immobile. This issue hasn’t been lost on the USA, where the US Air Force is now using mineral/biofuel Jet A1 blends in concentrations up to 50:50. One aircraft carrier’s complement of planes and helicopters is operating totally on biofuel.
As far as those of us who rely on diesel to propel our vehicles are concerned the simple fact is that the world is running out of oil. Many experts assert that we passed ‘peak oil’ – the point at which the world faces declining crude oil availability – some years ago. Whether you subscribe to global warming theory or not isn’t the point: we need to find alternative fuel sources to replace dwindling reserves of crude oil.
In Australia we have some reserves of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and vast reserves of natural gas, largely methane (CH4).
It’s possible that we could convert the nation’s diesel road transport fleet to run on natural gas, but operating range is limited, unless the fuel is stored on trucks as a liquid, which requires expensive cryogenic logistics.
We also have vast coal reserves that could be exploited for coal-to-liquid (CTL) fuel conversion, but the process is expensive.
With either of these strategies Australia could pursue the fossil fuel path for many decades, but increasingly we’d be out of step with global endeavours for CO2 reduction and this would undoubtedly incur increasingly harsh trading penalties.
Modelling by the Australian Government’s The Treasury department shows that increasing use of fossil reserves for
road transport isn’t the path chosen by this policy-examining body. Indeed, The Treasury prediction is for dominance of the transport fuel sector by biofuels. Treasury believes that this shift will occur whether we have a carbon tax or not.
“By 2030, biodiesels will become the dominant fuel used in heavy vehicles and represent more than 75 per cent of total fuel use by 2050,” says The Treasury modelling.
“Changes in transport fuels and technologies driven by heavy vehicle demand are also projected to provide spill-over benefits to light vehicle users.
“In particular, strong heavy vehicle demand aids the development of the biofuels industry and this leads to cheaper and more widely available biofuels for light vehicles.”
Bio Fuel Sources
So, if our future is in biofuels, where’s it all going to come from?
We’re already familiar with ethanol as a petrol-stocks ‘extender’ and production is well organised in Australia, if made erratic on occasions by political decisions such as the one made in NSW in 2012, where Premier Farry O’Barrell decided not to mandate ethanol in standard petrol.
We’re also familiar with biodiesel, produced, like ethanol, from production waste. Biodiesel is already incorporated in the diesel we buy from servo pumps in concentrations up to five percent.
Shifting biofuels from the role of ‘extenders’ to mainstream fuels will take time, effort and encouragement and it’s possible that different countries will adopt different biofuels strategies.
Jacques Cousteau assured us that there were more wonders in the sea than on land. In respect of one promising source of biofuels
this submariner was probably right.
Alternative energy researchers have been experimenting for many years with algae, as a likely source of liquid fuel to replace fossil fuels. The reasons are simple: algal growth is water based and doesn’t ‘steal’ land from food cropping and algae have many times the growth rates of terrestrial crops. The theoretical yield of biofuel feedstock from algae ranges between eight and 30 times the oil yield from land-based crops.
US research indicates that an efficient algae photo-bioreactor covering about 25,000 square kilometres could produce enough biofuel to replace all automotive fossil fuels in the USA. That area is less than a tenth of the US soya-bean crop area.
Biofuel, produced from algae in a bioreactor, requires an input of water and carbon dioxide (CO2); and what gas is it that we’re trying to get rid of from our atmosphere? Yep, CO2. It makes more sense to use CO2 from power stations to feed an algal bioreactor than to ‘sequest’ it underground. (Sequestration is scientific mumbo-jumbo for ‘burial’.)
Unlike other crops, algae can almost always be sourced locally and can often grow in the most extreme conditions and can even thrive in contaminated waste water. Some species of algae (notably Dunaliela salina) just love salty water with their CO2 meals, providing a possible use for the brine that emanates from desalination plants.
Once extracted, algal oil can be converted into biodiesel as easily as oil derived from land-based crops. Traditional options for removing oil from micro-algae biomass include mechanical pressing or chemical extraction, but these approaches are generally too costly, so the research work continues.
Some species of algae have another weird capacity: they can produce hydrogen instead of oxygen. Scientists have known since 1939 that some algae switch from producing oxygen to hydrogen and now global researchers from many universities are in a race to produce a commercially viable method. A recent
announcement by scientists at MIT, Tel Aviv University and the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory claims they’ve found a way to use algae to make four times as much H2 as before.
It all sounds too good to be true…and it is. At present, the difficulty is extracting the oil content in cost-effective percentages, without damaging by-products, including valuable biomass.
For commercial biofuel feedstock production algae must be grown in a photo-bioreactor, in which light, CO2, water and nutrients are fed into the system in a controlled manner.
Photo-bioreactors vary from ponds and tanks to poly sleeves or bags and glass or plastic tubes. Vertical, transparent containers allow maximum light entry and can offer greater productivity than pond and tank reactors that often have a problem with light penetrating the top layers of algae. However, various means of increasing the efficiency of pond photo-bioreactors are being tried, including submerged light sources, aeration and paddle wheel agitation.
In Queensland, MBD Energy has a one-hectare Algal Synthesiser Display Plant at Tarong Power Station that is capturing and recycling some of the coal-fired power generator’s CO2 emissions into algal biomass, potentially suited to downstream production of fuels, animal feed and fertilisers.
The micro-algae being used are selected from field samples collected locally, thereby avoiding any potential risk to local biodiversity.
The MBD facility, commissioned in 2012, comprises vertical growth columns to assist with early stage cultivation and an array of 50-metre-long, plastic membranes in which the algae can potentially double in mass every 24 to 48 hours, with potential for substantial daily harvests.
This trial facility is a blueprint for the design and construction of much larger algal synthesisers that may help coal-fired power stations and other major industrial emitters to reduce their CO2 emissions and provide lower cost alternative sources for animal
feed, fertilisers and fuels.
The MBD Algal Synthesiser team at Tarong Power Station is taking the process one step at a time: first building a display plant that can effectively recycle captured flue-gases in micro-algal biomass, then deciding whether the process can be replicated on a commercial scale. It’s possible that future large-scale production will generate animal feed, fertiliser, solid fuel briquettes and feedstock for transport fuels.
Some species of algae are extremely rich in oil content, but efficiently extracting oil from the microscopic oil lipids within algae remains a challenge for algae fuel R&D teams around the world. The biggest downside to using micro-algae as feedstock for biocrude production is losing the valuable algae meal – a highly nutritious animal feed supplement or crop fertiliser.
Instead of extracting the oil, another option is to use algae biomass, oil, husk and all as feedstock in a Catalytic Hydrothermal Reactor process (Cat-HTR) to produce petrochemical refinery-ready synthetic crude oil from which any number of conventional transport fuels can be derived. Macro-algae is believed to be ideal for this – hence MBD’s new macro-algae research and development program at its James Cook University R&D facility.
Another algal-fuel initiative in Australia included the formation in 2010 of a joint-venture company, Muradel, involving Murdoch University, Adelaide Research & Innovation Pty Ltd and SQC Pty Ltd.
Since its incorporation Muradel has been bolstered by partnership with mining giant Rio Tinto and operates a $3.3-million pilot plant in Karratha, WA.
Aurora Algae is another Karratha-based enterprise, which plans to take industrial-waste CO2 from a local plant as feedstock and also aims to produce highly-profitable Omega 3 oil as a by-product of biomass and biofuel.
Crop biodiesel is a fatty acid methyl ester (FAME), made by the reaction of plant-sourced oil or animal fat with ethanol or methanol, in the presence of a catalyst.
The characteristics of biodiesel depend on the feedstock: for example, tallow produces biodiesel that typically has almost the same cetane level as diesel, but canola may produce biodiesel with around 90 percent of diesel’s energy level.
Australia’s principal current biodiesel feedstocks are animal-sourced tallow and vegetable oils such as canola oil, soybean oil and peanut oil.
Biodiesel has excellent lubricity, which is good news for injection system components and a higher flashpoint than diesel, making it even safer to handle. Biodiesel is also more biodegradable than diesel.
Biodiesel from non-food-supply sources looks like the most renewable and least whole-of-life emitting fuel available. The forward-looking Ricardo Group has published a table of alternative propulsion systems that shows biodiesel’s clear advantages.
Despite its positives, ‘biodiesel’ has become a horror word for some people, because ‘backyard’ operators produced cocktails that damaged engines. There is a growing ‘cottage industry’ in biodiesel production, with individuals all around the world setting up home biodiesel production and DIY biodiesel information is readily available on the internet. Quality control of the output from these installations is a major concern for diesel engine makers
and there is an ongoing European study into the stability of biodiesel in differing storage conditions.
However, professionally-produced, high-quality biodiesel has no such quality issues and has been blended with Australia’s diesel fuels in proportions up to five percent (B5) for years, without any notification being required on diesel pumps.
The world’s major diesel engine makers have developed international standards for diesel fuel through American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) in North America and the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) in Europe and agree that all fuels used in diesel engines, including petroleum-based diesel and biodiesel fuels, should meet the technical parameters of ASTM D975 or EN 590.
Australia has published a fuel standard for biodiesel under the Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000. It is referred to as Fuel Standard (Biodiesel) Determination 2003, Table 1. While the technical requirements of this standard include limits that are found in both the US ASTM D6751 and Europe’s EN 14214, it
is identical to neither of these.
The 2008 Position Paper on biofuels canvassed the Australian fuel quality situation and concluded that the current unlabelled B5 situation would continue and that Australia would work towards a B10 blend, following an initiative set by the EEC.
The move to B10 blending of biodiesel with mineral diesel will probably be the next step for Australia and biodiesel is set to become our major transport fuel over the next 20 years. The Treasury’s recent modelling for this country’s fuel future states:
“The most significant change in fuel mix is the adoption of biodiesel blends.
“By 2030, biodiesels will become the dominant fuel used in heavy vehicles and represent more than 75 per cent of total fuel use by 2050.”
Some transport operations are already running on biodiesel concentrations up to 100-percent, with diesel engine maker approval, under fuel quality compliance conditions.
Australia lags well behind Europe and the USA in biodiesel production and R&D, but in some respects that may work in our favour. In both these regions there have been supply source and production quality issues to overcome, and we may profit by that experience.
For example, the EEC’s Renewable Energy Directive and the USA’s Environment Protection Agency Renewable Fuels Standard have caused turmoil in Malaysia and Indonesia, which supply the EEC and the USA with palm oil for many uses, including biofuel production. The EEC and the USA encourage renewable fuel sources, but both regions’ lawmakers have finally judged that palm oil production has been done at the expense of old-growth forests, as anyone who’s visited these regions knew only too well.
In Malaysia, the land devoted to palm oil plantations increased to 4.48 million hectares in 2008, up from around 641,700 hectares in 1975.
The USA and the EEC have invoked the concept of indirect land use change (ILUC) in assessing the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels, rather than the narrow view of accepting all renewable fuels. ILUC assessment applies where existing carbon-absorbing vegetation and peat lands are destroyed to plant fuel crops. The findings have reduced the whole-of-life emissions values of palm-oil-derived biofuels and their tax advantages are greatly reduced.
So far, protests by palm oil producers, marketers and lobbyists have been rejected in Europe and North America, but the battle rages on.
In the USA, the oil companies have also been involved in anti-biofuel activities. The American Petroleum Institute has been trying to have the 2011 cellulosic biofuel Renewable Volume Obligation under Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) overturned. This law enforces increasing biofuel percentages being added to
fossil fuels – 53 billion litres in 2011 increasing to 140 billion litres in 2022 – and so far the EPA has been steadfast.
The API seems to have adopted an odd stance, because many oil companies – notably BP, Chevron, Exxon and Shell – are heavily involved in biofuels projects. Are we being cynical suggesting that they’re so used to monopoly marketing that they want to delay compulsory biofuel use until they dominate this
emerging industry as well?
Where Will Yuh Get It
Given that Australia seems committed to a biodiesel future it’s obvious to ask where tomorrow’s fuel will come from. If Australia is to achieve Treasury’s stated 75-percent reliance on biodiesel there will clearly have to be more feedstock than we currently have.
Australia is presently producing biodiesel from food-related sources – so-called ‘first generation’ biodiesel – and these sources haven’t been fully exploited. A new biodiesel production facility in NSW’s Port Kembla is scheduled to produce 288 million litres annually of sustainable soybean-sourced biodiesel
– equivalent to two-percent of total diesel consumption in Australia – according to the plant developers, National Biodiesel Australia. The residue will be converted into livestock feed and fertiliser.
As yet undeveloped, non-food sources are ‘second generation’ fuels. CSIRO estimates are that current, non-food biofuel sources, including forestry and crop waste, could produce up to 30 percent of Australia’s fuel needs.
To cover what will be an obvious large shortfall in future biodiesel supply the Australian Government has called for applications under the Advanced Biofuels Investment Readiness (ABIR) Program. This $15 million Program is administered by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and offers grant funding to selected projects aimed at the production of high energy, advanced biofuels.
It will be interesting to see what emerges from the ABIR Program, but in the meantime R&D continues.
Oil-Seed, Non-Food Plants
Pongamia (Milletia pinnata) and Indian mustard (Brassica juncea) are oilseed plants that are being investigated in Australia as feedstocks for biodiesel. Pongamia is a drought-resistant and saline-soil-tolerant tropical tree that’s native to India and Australia. Test plantations have been established in southern and south-central Queensland and at Kununurra in Western Australia. The University of Queensland is breeding high-yield trees to optimise biodiesel production.
In Texas, in the USA, TerViva Bioenergy Inc is researching Pongamia and sees it as the ideal oilseed producer, with possible yields of up to 8000 litres per acre and real-world yields no lower than 1600-2000 litres per acre. According to President and CEO Naveen Sikka, that’s superior to camelina or soy oil sources.
Indian mustard is an annual oilseed crop closely related to canola and rapeseed. In 2006 Sydney University established an Indian mustard breeding program for biodiesel production in Narrabri, NSW The seed crop was rotated with winter cereal crops and resulted in enough biodiesel to supply the town’s needs, while also increasing the yield of the subsequent cereal crops. The most productive varieties of Indian mustard seed are now undergoing pre-commercial trails in several locations.