Climate Champions: Bananas, Beer & Sugar in the Energy Mix
While many Australian’s are happy consuming Queensland’s bananas, sugar and beer to help them power through their day, researchers at the University of Queensland are looking at ways to extract even more energy from these sources in the form of biofuels. And two sugar cane farmers in northern New South Wales been chosen to represent their industry in a national program to help other farmers manage Australia’s increasingly variable climate.
Queensland power: bananas, beer and sugarcane
While many Australian’s are happy consuming Queensland’s bananas, sugar and beer to help them power through their day, researchers at The University of Queensland are looking at ways to extract even more energy from these sources in the form of biofuels.
Over the last decade, biofuels have started to play an important role in the global energy arena, so much that they have become an increasingly viable alternative to fossil energy.
The UQ based Cooperative Research Centre for Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology (CRC SIIB) is currently collaborating on a project that seeks to improve the viable production of fuel grade ethanol from Australian sugarcane, by sequencing the first sugarcane genome.
Head of the research project Professor Robert Henry said by sequencing the genome, the Australian sugarcane industry will have a fantastic platform from which to conduct all future research into enhanced cane that produce more sucrose and a vast array of environmentally friendly fuel and bio-based products.
“By understanding the biological makeup of a plant, we can be more exact in our research and also identify many more sustainable applications for sugarcane,” Professor Henry said.
While this project is seeking to enhance an already viable biofuel production method, Associate Professor Bill Clarke and his team at UQ’s Division of Environmental Engineering have turned their interest to an untapped potential energy crop – bananas.
Through his project Digestion of Waste Bananas to Generate Energy in Australia, Dr Clarke demonstrated that waste bananas and stalk material within the banana bunch are a great source of methane – a biogas product.
Given that Queensland’s banana industry produces around 60,000 tonnes of plant waste a year, it wasn’t long that Dr Clarke’s research was recognised as sustainably and economically important to the industry.
Growcom, a peak horticulture organisation transformed the research into a small commercial scale project which now process 2,500 tonnes of banana waste per year, producing over 80,000 cubic metres of methane gas – enough to run a truck and generator.
If the project becomes successful, its benefits for the Queensland banana industry will include waste mitigation, a reliable fuel source for on-farm vehicles and generators, improved greenhouse balance and an environmentally acceptable source of high quality fertiliser.
Working along the same lines as Dr Clarke, fellow UQ researcher Dr Korneel Rabaey has also been looking at new ways to produce sustainable fuels. His research with UQ’s Advanced Water Management Centre has demonstrated the viability of converting wastewater and biomass into energy-rich biofuels – among these, wastewater from breweries.
In 2007, Dr Rabaey was part of a joint project between UQ and brewing giant Foster’s to turn beer wastewater into electricity using a so-called microbial fuel cell.
“Wastewater contains nutrients (for agriculture), water (which can be purified) and organics. The latter represent both building blocks for value chemicals or can be used to generate electrical or thermal energy,” Dr Rabaey said.
Following this pilot trial, Dr Rabaey and his colleagues took the concept further, and modified the technology to produce caustic soda and hydrogen peroxide, two valuable chemicals that presently have a negative environmental – and economic – footprint. This technology is currently commercialised via a spin-off company, Bilexys Pty. Ltd.
In the long run, Dr Rabaey and colleagues aim to go even further, and use electrical current to produce biofuels and biochemicals. One example of such a fuel is butanol.
With oil becoming ever more expensive, coupled with an increased awareness of and social concern for environmental issues, the demand for biofuels, such as these, is expected to become even greater.
Robert Quirk reports on sugar farmers being recruited for Climate Champion program (announced last week):
Two sugar cane farmers have been chosen to represent their industry in a national program to help other farmers manage Australia’s increasingly variable climate.
Robert Quirk, of Tweed River, and Michael Waring, of Ingham, are participants in the Climate Champion program, which was initiated by the Managing Climate Variability Research and Development Corporation and in partnership with the Sugar Research and Development Corporation (SRDC), Grains Research & Development Corporation, Meat & Livestock Australia, Dairy Australia and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.
Mr Quirk and Mr Waring, who are sponsored by SRDC, are among 34 farmers from around Australia that have been selected for the program and were recognised for their interest in climate and weather and improving productivity on their farms. The farmers come from a wide background and represent most of Australia’s agricultural commodities including grains, livestock, wool, sugar, dairy, horticulture, grapes and wine, farm forestry and honey.
“We hope that by being part of the Climate Champion program we will help raise awareness and discussion within farming communities about new innovations for managing variable climatic conditions such as extreme heat and low rainfall,” Mr Quirk says.
“Ian McClelland, from the Birchip cropping group, will chair the group and Brisbane-based science communication firm Econnect will be the project coordinators, while Col Creighton who a lot of you would know is also helping keep us on the right track.”
Participants of the Climate Champion program met for the first time on 29 March 2010 for a two-day workshop in Canberra.
“We developed a plan that will direct our way forward and it was decided that we will be known as members of the Climate Champion program,” Mr Quirk said.
“All members have offered to host research that may help to reduce the effects of climate change.”
Mr Quirk will be doing a report on the Climate Champion program in this and other media on a regular basis.
Participants of the Climate Champion Program will have direct access to the latest climate research findings, the opportunity to run trials on their own farms, contribute to the development of new climate management tools and technologies and pass on their experiences with the changes they’ve made to their own farming systems.
The Climate Champion Program is aimed at getting research information out to farmers on new technologies and practices for dealing with climate variability and climate change. They will share the latest research findings with other farmers through various networks such as field days and farmer group meetings. Participants of the Climate Champion Program will also feed information back to researchers about what farmers need to better understand and manage climate on their properties.
Chair of the Managing Climate Variability program, Ian McClelland, says the strategy reflects that most farmers gain new knowledge and adopt new practices through interaction with their peers.
“Farmer’s value the knowledge and experience of other farmers more than from anyone else, including advice provided by agricultural consultants and researchers,” Mr McClelland says.