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On February 4, 2020, Australia-based AgBioEn began working on the construction of a $2 billion biomass energy facility in Katunga, Central Victoria.
According to the definition provided by the European Union Directive, biomass comprises biodegradable products, wastes and residues that originate from agricultural, forestry and related industries.
Biomass is currently the third-largest renewable energy source in the world, and, as the global transition towards green technology intensifies, biomass production is set to rise as well.
Several different varieties of biomass exist, some of which include aquatic, herbaceous, human and animal wastes, wood, and industrial organic waste biomass. In addition to these varieties, biomass can be converted into solid, liquid and gaseous biofuels and biochemicals.
The growing interest in biomass, biofuel and biochemical production around the world is primarily due to its numerous and advantageous properties.
As many other renewable energy sources, biomass is a biodegradable resource. Therefore, its use is associated with significantly lower levels of hazardous emissions. More specifically, when compared to fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources, the production and consumption of biomass is not associated with the release of methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitric oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx) and other toxic trace elements.
An Overview of AgBioEn
The AgBioEn project broke ground on February 4, 2020, with a total of 40 hectares of greenhouse planned for construction on more than 75,000 hectares of cropping land on Nurmurkah Road site.
As the first large-scale and full integrated renewable energy business operation to be constructed in Australia, AgBioEn will incorporate new and exciting technologies to promote the replacement of fossil fuels with clean liquid fuels derived from agricultural waste.
The AgBioEn project will have a net carbon-negative outcome, which means that the fuel transformation processes conducted onsite will absorb more CO2 than it produces, allowing Australia to become a net exporter of CO2 rather than an importer.
The AgBioEn will take waste products such as seeds, pips, leaf mulch, stalks and manure to create various biofuels, including fertilizer, jet fuel and liquid gas.
In addition to these agricultural byproducts, raw material, such as canola and/or sunflower oil-producing crops, will also be sourced from local farmers. The AgBioEn project expects to cultivate carinata seed, which is a rotation crop that has a yield rate averaging at 20% more than similar crops.
What Technology will be used at the AgBioEn Biomass Energy Facility?
The AgBioEn facility in Katunga, Central Victoria plans to use a combination of the biomass pyrosis process and Fischer Tropsch to transform several different organic waste materials, such as cereal straw, into various energy products, some of which will include electricity, high-quality renewable diesel and jet fuel, fertilizer and food-grade CO2.
The pyrolysis process subjects raw material to high temperatures in the range of 450-500 °C in an oxygen-free environment.
The extreme atmosphere surrounding the raw material will cause char, which is a term used to describe the solid products of pyrolysis, as well as various gaseous products.
Part of the gaseous products is then cooled in a condenser that has a much lower temperature as compared to that in the pyrolytic reactor. This condensation process will separate the gaseous products into non-condensable fractions, otherwise known as gas, as well as condensable fractions that are also referred to as tar or bio-oil.
In addition to apparent differences in their physical characteristics, the solid, gaseous, and tar substances that are produced following pyrolysis also differ in their chemical composition.
The solid products, for example, often comprise coal, ash, heavy metals and unreacted biomass components, whereas the gas products include carbon monoxide (CO), CO2, CH4, hydrogen gas (H2), and other hydrocarbon compounds.
Fischer Tropsch synthesis
The AgBioEn project will be one of the first commercial and large-scale biomass to liquid (BTL) plants that utilize FT synthesis methods.
While traditional applications of the Fischer Tropsch (FT) process involved the gasification of CH4 or coal, biomass-based FT plants have shown promising results as the production method of biofuels.
This newer type of FT synthesis begins with the gasification of biomass, which produces a bio-syngas product that can be separated into H2 and CO components by an FT reactor.
These components are eventually used to synthesize fractions of long-chain hydrocarbons that are converted into the final product of green diesel.
More recently, researchers have become increasingly interested in how FT synthesis can replace current biofuel production methods. Since FT fuels are free from NOx, sulfur and other aromatic chemicals, their production is associated with significantly lower emission levels compared to those required for the production of gasoline and diesel.
Supporting the Economy
By replacing fossil fuels with biofuels, the AgBioEn project is expected to reduce GHG emissions by more than 450,000 tons each year.
In addition to the numerous economic benefits that are associated with reducing GHG emissions, the AgBioEn project will create up to 1,500 local jobs in the long term.
Overall, it is estimated that more than $500 million will be directed to local businesses and contractor work throughout the entirety of the AgBioEn construction process. By bringing so many workers to Katunga for this project, local officials are hopeful that AgBioEn will also contribute to the overall growth of Katunga as a more populated and commercial area in the future.
Neighbor Benefits and the Future of the AgBioEn Project
In addition to supporting the advancement of both pyrolysis and FT technologies by expanding their production capabilities, AgBioEn will also preserve all agricultural land on the plant to ensure that food crop cultivation processes will not be disrupted.
Not only will on-site food cultivation be supported by AgBioEn, but neighboring farms, such as the Katunga Fresh hydroponic tomato farm that is located adjacent to AgBioEn, will also receive fuel and energy from this new project. This new, renewable and cost-effective energy source has allowed nearby facilities to expand their current operations.
The AgBioEn will significantly contribute to the replacement of fossil fuels with biofuels. This effort is expected to provide significant environmental improvements, including reduced habitat destruction, lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and lower socio-environmental impacts.
References and Further Reading
Kaczor, Z., Bulinski, Z., & Werle, S. (2020) Modelling approaches to waste biomass pyrolysis: a review. Renewable Energy 159; 427-443. doi:10.1016/j.renene.2020.05.110.
Vassilev, S. V., Vassileva, C. G., & Vassilev, V. S. (2015) Advantages and disadvantages of composition and properties of biomass in comparison with coal: An overview. Fuel 158; 330-350. doi:10.1016/j.fuel.2015.05.050.
AgBioEn (2020) AgBioEn invest $2 billion in Katunga and regional Victoria, turning agricultural waste into renewable fuels. [Online] Available at: https://gallery.mailchimp.com/0e7dfced13358715bcc9f596f/images/548d4dc1-d1bb-4bda-9c23-ff66ed6cf850.jpg (Accessed on 2 June 2020).
Ail, S. S., & Dasappa, S. (2016) Biomass to liquid transportation fuel via Fischer Tropsch synthesis – Technology review and current scenario. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 58; 267-286. doi:10.1016/j.rser.2015.12.143.
Australia’s National Local Government Newspaper Online (2020) Farm waste to fuel. [Online] Available at: https://www.lgfocus.com.au/editions/2020-02/farm-waste-to-fuel.php (Accessed on 2 June 2020).
Leader, N. (2019) Huge Katunga biofuel plant a step closer. [Online] Available at: https://www.numurkahleader.net.au/huge-katunga-biofuel-plant-a-step-closer?amp=1 (Accessed on 2 June 2020).