Push for cane, not sugar: Global insights into new industry

GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE: Ireland's Owenroe Lemass, Ed de Jong from the Netherlands, Australian Geoff Bell, Canada's Eric Soucy, Austrian Michael Mendl and Canada's Murray McLaughlin.
GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE: Ireland's Owenroe Lemass, Ed de Jong from the Netherlands, Australian Geoff Bell, Canada's Eric Soucy, Austrian Michael Mendl and Canada's Murray McLaughlin. Emily Smith

IF MICHAEL Mendl had fields of sugar cane at his disposal, it wouldn't go into making sugar.

The Austrian environmental engineer was one of a cross-section of biorefining specialists from around the world who visited the Racecourse Mill Pilot Plant on Thursday, after attending the Bioenegy Australia conference in Brisbane.

While most created products from corn, starch and grain-based feedstock, Mr Mendl saw equal potential for creating high-value products like paint, de-greasers and solvents when he looked at Mackay's cane fields.

"I would not go and make plain sugar, I would focus on high value products. So you're not exposed to the fluctuation in the sugar market," Mr Mendl said.

But he also noted the potential for biorefining was spread across the agricultural sector.

After seeing Brisbane buses were running on natural gas, he suggested "you can exchange that with biogas and you'll have a really sustainable fuel".

Canadian Dr Murray McLaughlin said the biofuels mandate in Canada, which was 10% across the nation and 15% in some provinces, has helped fuel their industry.

However, Owenroe Lemass said in Ireland, the introduction of a biofuels mandate had coincided with an excise duty exemption, driving distributors to import their "greener" fuels from Brazil and Argentina.

"We had a vibrant enough biofuels sector but it's actually kind of closed down overnight, not intentionally, but we had an excise duty exemption that was granted to biofuel producers," Mr Lemass said.

"And then we introduced a mandate (so) that fuel distributors were obliged to find (biofuels) but find it at the lowest cost, so they started buying biofuel from Brazil and biodiesel from Argentina."

While Australia is set to introduce a biofuels mandate at 3% from January 1 next year, Mr Lemass did not believe it would suffer similar side effects.

"I'm not familiar with the situation here but it looks like you have the right conditions for a competitive industry," he said.

Following the success of ethanol production in Canada, Mr McLaughlin said the industry was now geared at creating higher value products from its feed stocks, like chemicals and alcohol.

That was also likely to be the future in Australia.

Geoff Bell, chief executive officer of a company called MicroBioGen, is working to improve the strains of yeast used to create ethanol, to increase yield and lower costs. While the company was Australian-based, it conducted trials overseas.

He said the technology was "basically ready to go", but hoped the costs involved would fall enough in the next few years for companies to bring it back to Australia.

"That's the problem in Australia, someone has to want to buy the fuel and we have to make money out of it," Mr Bell said.

"I think Australia will be a follower in this technology, the risk is very, very high. (But as it) gets proven over there you can expect that technology to come back."

Topics:  biofuels environment mackay

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