Patented fibre-to-ethanol technologies in AU$20 million trial

Production time and the cost of fuel ethanol could be slashed using new patented technologies that are undergoing commercial development trials in Australia.

Australia’s Ethanol Technologies Limited (Ethtec), a Willmott Forests Limited company, today announced that work had begun on a three-year AU$20 million project designed to commercialise the patented fuel ethanol production process.

International patents protecting the United States and Australian developed technologies are held by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the University of Southern Mississippi and Australia’s Apace Research Limited.

Ethtec holds an exclusive worldwide licence to these patents.

Ethtec director and chief scientist Dr Russell Reeves says phase one of the four phase project at Harwood in the northern rivers region of New South Wales is attracting significant international interest.

Dr Reeves says that, if the commercialisation program is successful, production time could be slashed from “days to minutes” and fuel ethanol production costs dramatically reduced.

He says feasibility studies have concluded that fuel ethanol produced by the Ethtec process will have a crude oil equivalent cost in the range of US$36-50 per barrel (at exchange rate A$=US$0.88) when the ethanol is used in blends with petroleum fuels*.

This cost of ethanol, without government subsidies,  is highly competitive with the current cost of crude oil which is in the range of US$90-100 per barrel.

“Economically viable conversion of woody or fibrous materials to ‘cellulosic’ ethanol is internationally recognised as being the basis of an environmentally sustainable industry that is able to deliver this liquid fuel in the volume required to meet projected demand,“ Dr Reeves says.

“Quite apart from what’s happening in Australia, Sir Richard Branson has launched ‘Virgin Fuel’ which has announced plans to build or acquire plants to develop cellulosic ethanol.

“And, Microsoft chair, Bill Gates, has committed approximately US$80 million to the biomass ethanol industry.”

Willmott Forests Limited CEO Marcus Derham describes the value-adding potential for the plantation forest industry sector as “very exciting”.

“While we are pursuing this project conservatively with our sugar cane industry partners, the opportunity to add serious value to what has almost universally been treated as waste, is very, very compelling,” he says.

Dr Reeves says the production of ethanol from major food crops such as corn is distorting international markets and tying up vast areas of farm land in the United States and Europe, while delivering no significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Studies have shown that all of Australia’s liquid fuel demand could be met by ethanol produced from fibrous biomass … without interfering with food production or causing land or other environmental degradation,” he says.

“The Ethtec process brings distinct environmental and production advantages over other ethanol production processes.”

Major advantages of the new process technologies, which are attracting Australian federal and state government interest, include:

• Greenhouse gas reduction. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that use of fuel ethanol properly produced from woody or fibrous biomass results in almost no carbon dioxide emission.

• Positive energy balance for ethanol production. The Ethtec process converts fibrous biomass to ethanol and generates surplus electricity from combustion of the lignin co-product.

• Closed loop water cycle. The process captures production water and other liquids and treats and recycles them.

• Use of waste fibre as feedstock. The process enables the use of abundant supplies of waste fibre from existing industries, particularly sawmill wood residue and sugar production waste know as bagasse.

“Phase one of the pilot plant project involves a new hydrolysis process that converts components of the fibre to low cost pentose and hexose sugars in minutes compared to days for enzymatic hydrolysis processes,” according to Dr Reeves.

“These sugars can be used for the production of ethanol, bio-plastics and other renewable chemicals and as alternative sugars in some traditional sucrose markets.”

Dr Reeves is an internationally respected research scientist who has been involved for the past 30 years in international projects on the development of new technologies for the production and use of ethanol as fuel.

He obtained his PhD in Chemistry in 1978 from the University of Newcastle.  He is the inventor of technologies relating to the conversion of ‘lignocellulosic’ materials to ethanol.

Dr. Reeves is also the inventor of ‘diesohol’ technology that enables the use of hydrated ethanol-diesel blends in existing diesel engines.

 

“The ability to efficiently use ethanol in diesel engines, in addition to use in petrol engines, is necessary in order to reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions arising from using diesel fuel,” he says.

The new Ethtec pilot plant is being constructed alongside the historic Harwood Sugar Mill on the Clarence River in northern NSW, Australia.

The individual new technology processes to be brought online at the new plant during the next three years include:

• Phase one: hydrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass

• Phase two: production of sugars and lignin

• Phase three: fermentation of sugars to ethanol

• Phase four: ethanol recovery and process water recycling

“Our aim is to commercialise production of highly cost competitive fuel ethanol from lignocellulosic materials without using steam distillation and without generating large volumes of noxious effluent,” according to Dr Reeves.

“Results from the critical first two phases of the project are expected to be available within 18 months and commercialisation can follow quickly thereafter.”

* Feasibility studies have concluded that with an assumed initial capital investment of AU$70 million for a 50 ML/annum commercial scale plant, a 30 year plant life, 10 per cent IRR and a lignocellulosic feedstock cost of AU$50/dry tonne, the ethanol production cost using the proposed new process would be in the range of A$0.34-0.44/L. This corresponds to a crude oil equivalent cost of around US$36-50 per barrel (at exchange rate A$=US$0.88) when the ethanol is used in blends with petroleum fuels.

Photo: Ethtec director and chief scientist Dr Russell Reeves and his mountain of wood and sugar mill residue in northern NSW, Australia.

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