Can sugarcane create jet fuel?

A groundbreaking study investigating the growth of selected varieties of sugarcane to convert into high-performance jet fuel is underway at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM). Utilizing advanced technologies in agronomics and bioeconomy, the researchers are ultimately looking to improve the island’s environmental sustainability, build a stronger economy and create educational opportunities for students.

“The aviation industry recognizes that bio-based or sustainable aviation fuels are essential to the future of aviation,” said CAFNRM Dean Bruce Mathews, a principal investigator on the project. “Fully one-half of the industry’s greenhouse gas reduction goals for 2050 can only be achieved via sustainable jet fuels. Electric airplanes are only feasible for small planes on short-distance flights and the only electric airplane under development that has substantial range is a hybrid that still requires liquid fuel.”

Field trials growing different varieties of sugarcane at the UH Hilo Agricultural Farm Laboratory in Panaʻewa began in February, with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Daniel K. Inouye U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo.

The project is a collaboration between the CAFNRM and the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in California, one of four regional U.S. Department of Energy-funded Bioenergy Research Centers.

Why sugarcane?

Peter Matlock of JBEI, is also serving as CAFNRM’s bioeconomy research and commercialization specialist. Matlock, a strategic advisor for aviation fuels, said sugarcane was selected as the crop of focus because it is a tremendously prolific biomass (plant material) producer.

Traditionally, the commercial industry has accessed only the sucrose from the plant, which continues to serve as a foundation for the world’s sugar industry. But when growing sugarcane solely for sugar, the rest of the crop, specifically major plant biomass components known as lignin, cellulose and hemicellulose, normally go to waste.

The conventional practice of burning sugarcane prior to harvest is to eliminate extra biomass material that previously had limited value, and residual biomass left over after sucrose extraction is typically burned to make power. Converting this biomass into high-valued products such as high performance jet fuel generates more revenue from the same plant material and eliminates incentives to burn crops—reducing air pollution as a bonus.

“The interesting thing is if we can take the rest of the plant and break it apart, we’d≠ also have yummy digestible bits that can be fed into microbes to make our end products,” Matlock explained. The end product he mentioned would be the conversion of sugarcane into biofuel for aviation use. This fermentation process is much more ideal than traditional chemical synthesis, which often involves high heat and high pressure to force a reaction.

For more go to UH Hilo Stories.

—By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, a UH Hilo student earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies.

NSW pair launch sugar cane plastic option

Two Sydney entrepreneurs have used sugar cane to create a plastic packaging alternative.

Sugar cane could be the answer to Australia’s enormous plastic pollution problem, a pair of Sydney-based entrepreneurs say.

About 70 billion pieces of soft “scrunchable” plastics are used in Australia each year, many of which are food packaging.

Very little is recycled and much of it ends up in landfills or the ocean.

That’s a problem Grounded Packaging set out to solve, by creating a food packaging alternative that works like plastic but without any of the harmful impacts to the environment.

Former restaurateur Ben Grant, who co-founded the business with Josh Kempton, knows how difficult it is to find affordable and functional alternatives to plastic.

“We were trying to be as conscious as we could … but there was a particular pain point in trying to understand packaging and the options available to you,” he told AAP.

“The problems or issues with some of those materials are that they’re really really expensive, prohibitively so … and they’re limited in their functionality.”

That’s what led the pair to develop their BioPE material.

Made from sugar cane fibres, it is completely recyclable and carbon-negative – meaning more carbon is captured during the process of creating the product than is used.

It can also store oily and wet foods and liquids that have been forced to rely on plastic packaging in the past.

“One of the reasons why we’re really excited about it is the potential that it has to have positive impacts on a really large scale,” Mr Grant said.

“It can be manufactured using traditional manufacturing equipment, and the raw material is starting to become more and more abundant.”

It’s also far more affordable that other plastic alternatives, at about one-and-a-half times the cost of traditional plastic.

“To put that in to context, a lot of the other alternative materials that are on the market currently are anywhere from two to four times the cost,” Mr Grant said.

With the industry rapidly growing, the material should become cost competitive with plastic in a few years, he says.

The product has been tested with companies in the US and UK, including London coffee roasters Flying Horse, and is now available to Australian businesses.

Mr Grant said it was no silver bullet, but he hoped it would make sustainable practices more accessible for businesses.

“Plastics are dramatically overused… (but) a lot of businesses feel like it is too complex or too hard to be making changes,” he said.

“I would encourage people to look out here because there are some really interesting technologies starting to emerge that can help solve the problem.”

Sweet achievement as Bundaberg company makes ‘world first’ cane harvester

A Bundaberg company says it has manufactured the world’s first sugarcane harvester powered by a Stage 5 diesel engine and hopes to develop an export market for them in Japan.

Canetec has been developing the machine for the past 12 months in response to requests from Japan for a small harvester suited to its small fields and environmental and carbon emission standards.https://46dd41f4b140105e9870b251e1390304.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Its chief executive officer Glenn Soper said the company had decided to take up the challenge and the first YT4000-F model harvester is now undergoing field trials in advance of its scheduled arrival in Japan on April 15.

“Their current small machine harvesters are very basic. They have open cabs and little to none of the technical capabilities of harvesters that we see in Australia,” Mr Soper said.

“Our (Japanese) customers were requesting a new (small) model that would fit with all their environmental parameters such as having a Stage 5 engine and being under 128 horsepower (95.44 kilowatts).

FIELD TESTING: The Canetec YT4000-F model harvester equipped with a Tier 5 engine being tested under field conditions last week.

FIELD TESTING: The Canetec YT4000-F model harvester equipped with a Tier 5 engine being tested under field conditions last week.

“The YT4000-F is 121 horsepower (90.2kW) so we have been able to deliver that as well and provide a huge upgrade in driver comfort, harvesting efficiency and the machine’s technical capabilities.”

Canetec is importing 4.5-litre QSB Tier 5 Cummins engines from the United States to power the machines which are capable of harvesting around 33 tonnes an hour.

Australia hasn’t yet regulated emissions from non-road engines but a number of overseas countries have moved to Stage 4 and are planning to go to Stage 5.

Project engineer Peter Lambrides said it had taken 12 months to build the new model due to worldwide shortages of materials because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The cabin and track system are from Europe and the engine came from the US but the rest of the machine has been built locally,” he said.

“All the sheet metal has been locally welded and put together and all the gearboxes are made here In Bundaberg.”

Canetec has been building large- and medium-sized harvesters in Bundaberg for more than a decade and exports a range of harvester models locally and to Japan and the Asia Pacific.

Fittingly, the company operates out of the old factory site of Austoft once owned by the Toft brothers who developed Australia’s first sugar cane harvester in the early 1940s.

Case IH bought their company in 1996 and in 2004 Austoft production moved from Bundaberg to global sugar powerhouse, Brazil.

Mr Soper said a group of locals who included Bundeberg legend Cliff Fleming, co-founder and owner of Bundaberg Brewed Drinks, decided to buy the site to keep manufacturing jobs in the south-east Queensland coastal town.

The company now shares the site with waste-collection truck maker Superior Pak which provides work for Cantec staff who also do other manufacturing and fabricating jobs for local customers.

The company now produces about one cane harvester a month but Mr Soper hoped the Japanese market for the small harvesters could reach 20 units a year.

“We think it’s going to be a volume machine,” he said.

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.

This tableware made from sugarcane and bamboo breaks down in 60 days

Scientists have designed a set of “green” tableware made from sugarcane and bamboo that doesn’t sacrifice on convenience or functionality and could serve as a potential alternative to plastic cups and other disposable plastic containers. Unlike traditional plastic or biodegradable polymers — which can take as long as 450 years or require high temperatures to degrade — this non-toxic, eco-friendly material only takes 60 days to break down and is clean enough to hold your morning coffee ordinner takeout. This plastic alternative is presented November 12 in the journal Matter.

“To be honest, the first time I came to the US in 2007, I was shocked by the available one-time use plastic containers in the supermarket,” says corresponding author Hongli (Julie) Zhu of Northeastern University. “It makes our life easier, but meanwhile, it becomes waste that cannot decompose in the environment.” She later saw many more plastic bowls, plates, and utensils thrown into the trash bin at seminars and parties and thought, “Can we use a more sustainable material?”

To find an alternative for plastic-based food containers, Zhu and her colleagues turned to bamboos and one of the largest food-industry waste products: bagasse, also known as sugarcane pulp. Winding together long and thin bamboo fibers with short and thick bagasse fibers to form a tight network, the team molded containers from the two materials that were mechanically stable and biodegradable. The new green tableware is not only strong enough to hold liquids as plastic does and cleaner than biodegradables made from recycled materials that might not be fully de-inked, but also starts decomposing after being in the soil for 30-45 days and completely loses its shape after 60 days.

“Making food containers is challenging. It needs more than being biodegradable,” said Zhu. “On one side, we need a material that is safe for food; on the other side, the container needs to have good wet mechanical strength and be very clean because the container will be used to take hot coffee, hot lunch.”

The researchers added alkyl ketene dimer (AKD), a widely used eco-friendly chemical in the food industry, to increase oil and water resistance of the molded tableware, ensuring the sturdiness of the product when wet. With the addition of this ingredient, the new tableware outperformed commercial biodegradable food containers, such as other bagasse-based tableware and egg cartons, in mechanical strength, grease resistance, and non-toxicity.

The tableware the researchers developed also comes with another advantage: a significantly smaller carbon footprint. The new product’s manufacturing process emits 97% less CO2 than commercially available plastic containers and 65% less CO2 than paper products and biodegradable plastic. The next step for the team is to make the manufacturing process more energy efficient and bring the cost down even more, to compete with plastic. Although the cost of cups made out of the new material ($2,333/ton) is two times lower than that of biodegradable plastic ($4,750/ton), traditional plastic cups are still slightly cheaper ($2,177/ton).

“It is difficult to forbid people to use one-time use containers because it’s cheap and convenient,” says Zhu. “But I believe one of the good solutions is to use more sustainable materials, to use biodegradable materials to make these one-time use containers.”

Irrigation boost for cane growers in Burdekin and Bundaberg

Irrigation innovation hubs are being established in key sugar cane growing regions in a bid to help farmers better manage their crops and increase profitability.

Cane growers in the Burdekin district are teaming up with researchers from the University of Southern Queensland with the aim to produce bigger yields through irrigation management.

USQ project lead Michael Scobie is working with a range of experts to develop the skills and capacity of local extension and service providers which will ultimately help farmers produce more cane.

“This project is really looking at helping people involved in the sugar cane industry get better at managing, understanding and assessing their irrigation assistance performance,” Mr Scobie said.

“The idea is to build up the capacity for people who are existing and working in this industry.

“From consultants to extension officers, individuals work one-on-one with our researchers to develop their skills.

“Whether it’s assessing pumps and irrigation systems, developing new technologies or implementing better strategies to reduce water loss, it’ll mean delivering bigger profits for sugar cane growers.”

Sugar cane is one of Australia’s biggest and thirstiest crops, with an estimated 160,000 hectares under irrigation, lapping up millions of litres of water a year.

The project is part of a broader scheme – the Australian Government’s Smarter Irrigation for Profit (Phase 2) – which brings together experts to improve irrigation performance across cotton, grains, sugar cane, dairy and rice industries.
https://c8e405b5f895c7152a511a9cd286c47f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

USQ’s Dr Malcolm Gillies is working on a project to modernise the labour intensive process of furrow irrigation.

It builds on a Sugar Research Australia funded project in the Burdekin four years ago, which saw growers successfully move to automation.

Since then, there has been additional investment in furrow automation systems and Dr Gillies said researchers were looking to see if the learnings could be applied further south.

“USQ is working with growers across the Bundaberg and Burdekin regions to… see if the automation of systems is feasible and secondly to see which technologies are applicable and to see whether the economics stack up,” Dr Gillies said.

“As part of the… program we’re working across multiple industries so some of the learnings we have made in the cotton industry we are transferring those to the sugar industry.

“There is a large range of new technologies and new equipment becoming available and our role as researchers is to help growers use that technology to its best advantage.”

Mr Scobie said the sugar industry faced difficult issues including challenging weather conditions and low world sugar prices, which could reduce productivity and profitablity.

“Improving irrigation and water management on the farm, is one key approach to making sure that the industry remains vibrant and viable.”