Sugarcane and the Creation of Carbon-Negative Hydrogen

Professor Damien Batstone speaks to AZoCleantech about his game-changing research on how sugarcane can be used as a clean energy source to produce hydrogen.

What drove your research into sugarcane as a clean energy source to create hydrogen?

We had previously researched the conversion of sugarcane into alternative products (such as biopolymers) and found this to be highly favorable economically. Whereas sugar production utilizes bagasse as thermal energy, this is a residue when making biopolymers, liquid sugar, or ethanol. This residue can then be used for electricity generation or alternative energy products such as hydrogen.

What makes sugarcane a suitable resource that could revolutionize hydrogen production?

We are using the bagasse fraction, as the juice fraction can be utilized elsewhere (e.g., for ethanol or biopolymer production). Very few other crops result in such a huge and relatively reliable amount of biomass, making it ideal for large-scale hydrogen production.

Can you explain the processes your team has used in its research?

We investigated two technologies. Thermal gasification is a dry process and is carried out at a high temperature. The bagasse is dried, and then incomplete combustion results in a mixture of gases, which further react to hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is extracted (and may be captured for storage), leaving the hydrogen as a product. We also investigated hydrothermal gasification, which is a similar reaction, but at high pressure and in wet conditions. This avoids needing to dry the bagasse before processing.

Would the use of sugarcane to make hydrogen be a costly process? Could this technology be adopted on a much larger scale?

Based on our economic analysis, the process can make hydrogen at $1.5-$3/kg, which is a lower cost than any other form of non-fossil hydrogen. It can be made at an even lower cost if we do not produce the hydrogen at high pressure. This technology is only applicable at a larger scale (500+ t bagasse per day), and we have evaluated up to 2500 t bagasse per day. For reference, the lower scale is a moderate-sized sugar mill, while 2500 t/d is the largest-sized sugar mill.

What happens to the carbon dioxide produced during production?

It is currently separated from hydrogen as a sour gas stream (which also includes sulfides). This can either be geo-stored or used industrially.

This research offers the potential for positive environmental benefits if adopted on a larger scale. Please can you explain this in more detail?

It represents a sustainable source of low-cost hydrogen while offering the ability to fix the carbon-dioxide for industrial use or long-term storage.

How would cane growers benefit from this alternative pathway for the industry?

Cane growers and mills are highly exposed to world commodity sugar pricing, with the cost of production often exceeding sugar prices. Producing alternative products from juice (such as biopolymers or fuel) while processing the bagasse into hydrogen provides improved profitability. A hydrogen production hub also provides improved regional benefits, including an industrial base and employment.

Why is this research important for the wider hydrogen production industry?

As an important future energy carrier and major industrial input, continuity and diversity of non-fossil hydrogen production is essential. The only other major source of non-fossil hydrogen is renewable electricity, which is subject to spot pricing fluctuations and variation in supply. We also produce it at a far lower cost and potentially at a larger scale than electrolytic hydrogen.

Why is hydrogen important for the future of converting unusable energy? How does this research project fit into this?

Hydrogen converts electricity and otherwise unusable energy to a highly versatile, clean, chemical energy source. It is the best way to decarbonize the industrial chemical ecology, including clean metallurgy, vehicle fuels (conventional and emerging, including hydrogen directly), fertilizer, plastics, and commodity chemicals. It can even be used to make food. While it can be transported, as a highly compressed gas or liquid, or as liquid ammonia, one of the best ways to use it is to connect a hydrogen producer directly to the end-user.

What challenges have you faced during your research and how were these overcome?

The technology is relatively conventional, given it has been used in coal gasification for over a century, and some challenges (e.g., the formation of toxic byproducts) are mitigated by the clean nature of bagasse. Key challenges relating to the high-pressure process included the limited availability of materials capable of withstanding high temperatures and pressures. This increased the cost of the hydrothermal process substantially. We also found that the need to compress hydrogen for sale was an economically limiting factor.

How can farmers and sugar companies go about applying the research findings to their businesses in the future?

A future project will be large in scale and will involve the direct involvement of growers, sugar companies, and likely end-users. It will also include governments investing in a hydrogen economy, incentivizing the industry, and improving the sugar industry’s economic sustainability.  Sugar companies are already assessing the technology, and farmers should assess future technologies and product streams.

What are the next steps for the project?

A position paper is being produced in Q1 2021, which will present the study’s aggregate outcomes and be made publicly available. Outcomes from the work are currently being provided to sugar companies.

About Damien Batstone

Professor Damien Batstone leads environmental biotechnology and resource recovery research programs at The Advanced Water Management Centre, The University of Queensland, Australia. Research work has focused on renewable energy from biomass, the production of commodity chemicals from renewable sources, and the water-energy-food nexus, including the production of novel feeds for aquaculture from gases such as hydrogen. He coordinated the final year undergraduate chemical engineering design course at UQ from 2017-2020, in which 150-200 students design a novel process from concept to final design. The 2020 design challenge was hydrogen from bagasse.

Grant helps secure sugarcane farms and jobs

CANEGROWERS has welcomed the announcement of a Federal Government grant for a crucial piece of infrastructure to help Maryborough and Sunshine Coast growers get their sugarcane to Childers for crushing this year.

The Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and local Federal MP Keith Pitt have announced a $2.5 million Community Development Grant towards the construction of a transloader to move sugarcane from road to rail transport so it can be processed at the Isis Central Sugar Mill.

CANEGROWERS had called for government assistance after MSF Sugar announced the closure of the Maryborough Mill at the end of the 2020 season.

“This grant shows that a relatively small investment on the part of government can have a profound impact on the economic stability of a regional community,” CANEGROWERS Maryborough Chairman Jeff Atkinson said.

“It gives longer term confidence to the 90 sugarcane growers in my region and job security to 140 farm workers and contractors.

“It is a good result all round – Maryborough sugarcane can now support a viable Isis Mill into the future.”

CANEGROWERS Maryborough and CANEGROWERS Isis are working on behalf of members in the region to ensure all the pieces are in place for a successful 2021 season.

Isis Central Sugar Mill is matching the government grant so the facility will be operational before the season starts.

Queensland Government support is also being sought and if this is forthcoming, growers will have the confidence they need for a successful season that now only hinges on the urgent need for rain in the southern sugarcane regions of Queensland to promote crop growth.

“In January the rain looked good but February has delivered almost nothing with temperatures up to 38 degrees so the situation is getting desperate,” Mr Atkinson said.

Media comment: Jeff Atkinson | CANEGROWERS Maryborough | 0428 212 792
More information: Neroli Roocke | CANEGROWERS Communications | 0418 871 881

Cane grower reduces fertliser use on the Burdekin

After more than 60 years growing cane on the Burdekin, and following in the footsteps of his father before him, Jim Richardson knows a thing or two about land management.

Mr Richardson, who has 72 hectares under cane on the Burdekin Delta, began reducing his fertiliser use almost 10 years ago.

After first participating in the RP20 Burdekin Nitrogen Trials, Mr Richardson then teamed up with NQ Dry Tropics to take part in the Reef Trust Tender project between 2016 and 2018.

As a result of the two programs, Mr Richardson is using less fertiliser and saving money, without impacting his yield.

“We had some trials with RP20 and they were very precise trials, fertiliser was weighed and put on accurately,” Mr Richardson said.

“From that we found that putting excess fertiliser on over and above the ‘six easy steps’ in our case was a complete waste of money – the crop didn’t grow any bigger and it had less sugar.”

Mr Richardson said he believed farmers were the best land stewards who would willingly participate in best practice programs to both protect the environment and increase productivity, without the need for strict regulations.

“It doesn’t make sense to put too much fertiliser on if it’s proven that it doesn’t need it,” he said.

“It’s a waste of money – you might as well dump it on the road somewhere.

“There’s a happy medium and that’s what we’ve got to.”

Mr Richardson said a recent reef health report showing nitrogen runoff was reducing, was evidence that farmers were keen to do their bit.

“We’ve got the runs on the board as farmers go, there’s been a 25 per cent reduction in the nitrogen going out and that’s a considerable amount of fertiliser being saved all round,” he said.

“I think we as farmers are being blamed for things on the reef that I don’t think are caused by farming.

“It is my view that the reef has been able to overcome a lot of things, like weather events, that have occurred over time.”

QSL 2021-Season March Guaranteed Floor Pool

The QSL 2021-Season March Guaranteed Floor Pool is open for nominations. Here are a few key details.  

  • This is a QSL-Managed Pool
  • Nominations open up to 4pm on 5 March 2021
  • Minimum of 10 tonne nominations
  • Participants receive a guaranteed minimum return ($420/mt Actual or better)
  • In addition, pool participants receive 50% of any pricing achieved above the pool’s published strike price

Read the QSL 2021-Season March Guaranteed Floor Pool Overview by clicking here.

Isis Mill builds facility to cater to Maryborough cane

A $2.5 million Federal Government grant will boost the sugarcane industry allowing cane from Maryborough and further afield to be processed at the Isis Central Sugar Mill.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said the funding will be used to build a transloader facility in Childers to transport sugarcane from Maryborough, Gympie and the Sunshine Coast.

“The closure of the Maryborough Sugar Mill left a number of growers in the region in limbo,” the Deputy Prime Minister said.

“An agreement with Isis Central Sugar Mill, which is being finalised, means that cane will now be crushed, however, infrastructure is required in order to get the sugarcane to the Isis Mill.”

“The $2.5 million Community Development Grant will go towards the construction of a transloader to offload the cane. It will then be taken by rail to the Isis Mill.”

Federal Member for Hinkler Keith Pitt said he had been a strong advocate for the sugar industry.

“The Federal Government has provided $6.2 million in funding to Isis Central Sugar Mill in recent years: $5 million to construct 36km of cane railway track from Cordalba to Wallaville and $1.2 million for the Gayndah Regional Irrigation Development project,” Mr Pitt said.

“It’s unfortunate the Queensland State Labor Government hasn’t shown the sugarcane industry any support, in what is ultimately, a transport issue.

“It’s growers and workers at Maryborough Sugar Mill, in the Member for Maryborough – who is also the Assistant Minister for Regional Roads – electorate, who are effected by the mill closure and the State Government still has done nothing.

“The Federal Government have been doing the heavy lifting right through the Covid pandemic, and continues to, with the State Government refusing to assist in getting the sugarcane from Maryborough, Gympie and the Sunshine Coast to Isis Mill.”

Isis Mill matches funding amount

Isis Central Sugar Mill chief executive officer John Gorringe said the Federal Government’s $2.5 million in funding would be matched by the Isis Mill.

“We’re very grateful to the Federal Government and our local Federal Member Keith Pitt for continuing to support the Isis Central Sugar Mill,” he said.

Almost an additional 600,000 tonnes of cane is expected to be transported from the Maryborough Mill and surrounding areas for crushing at Isis.

“The transloader facility, which we expect to have operational before the crushing season starts, will allow Isis Mill to take cane from Maryborough and surrounding areas.”

Preliminary excavation works are currently underway to accommodate a tramline extension to the transloader facility which will be located near the Childers QFRS building and Industrial Estate off Goodwood Road.

The work involves construction of a spur line where the current Isis Mill rail line crosses the Bruce Highway south of Childers.

The Isis Central Sugar Mill crushed just short of 809,000 tonnes in the 2020 season which again was impacted by prolonged dry conditions.

NSW Sugar Season Wraps Up

In what has been a tumultuous year across the globe, the sugar industry in NSW has successfully
manoeuvred its way through a crush season filled with challenges and opportunities.

Despite the many hurdles presented by the COVID pandemic, the cane growing and harvesting community
of the Northern Rivers has safely and successfully completed harvesting this year’s 1.75 million tonne
sugarcane crop.

The three sugar mills have maintained processing capability and delivered production of just over 200k
tonnes of raw sugar in 2020.

The Condong sugar mill completed a total crush of 519,528 tonnes of sugarcane on the 1st December. The
average CCS for the season was 11.60.

An earlier finish of 20th November at the Broadwater sugar mill saw 661,615 tonnes crushed with a
season average 12.20 CCS.

At Harwood, the mill crushed a total of 562,886 tonnes of sugarcane with a season average 11.87
CCS. Crushing concluded on 3rd December.

Although COVID conditions negatively impacted sales volumes and operating costs, NSW cane growers
will still receive a price advantage over their Queensland counterparts. This is thanks to a focused sales
and marketing effort to maintain margins, financial gains made through a managed hedging program and
positive returns beginning to be realised through Sunshine Sugars diversification projects.

The introduction of the Mercedes Benz fleet over the past 18 months for cane haulage has contributed to
the bottom line by delivering efficiency gains and cost savings in the transport department.

With the news of mill closures at Maryborough and Bingera, it is clear that the sugar industry is doing it
tough.

Sunshine Sugar CEO, Mr Chris Connors says: “Whilst 2020 has been a difficult time for businesses and
communities alike, the local sugar industry has achieved some positive outcomes in pricing and cost
savings. With the recent unrest in the Queensland industry, we need to remain positive and focused on our
core objective of keeping our industry and our growers here in NSW sustainable.”