Waste is a big problem for agriculture. After every harvest each crop leaves behind a residual biomass which often remains unused. If some of this waste material could be re-purposed, it would make farms more efficient and profitable, and reduce their negative environmental impacts. Modern chemical science has the potential to turn what is currently trash into treasure by transforming agricultural residues into a range of valuable commodities.
Realising this potential is difficult. Although many technologies have been developed to extract value from waste agricultural biomass, researchers are yet to develop a commercially viable system. Most methods convert waste biomass into liquid fuel (ethanol) for energy or transport. Those processes produce their own waste, and are often not efficient enough to be profitable without subsidy.
Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) are leading an Australian team looking to develop a solution. They aim to develop a commercially viable, zero-waste bio-refinery which will transform agricultural waste into bioplastics, resins, catalysts, pharmaceutical precursors, and energy.
The Australia-India Strategic Research Fund supported this Australian initiative and helped them to team up with a group of Indian partners lead by the Institute of Chemical Technology. Both countries bring complementary strengths to the effort. India has several commercial scale bio-energy plants, built or under construction, as well as deep expertise in biomass to ethanol production processes. Australia brings its own pilot plants, economic modelling, bio-engineering and leading edge supercritical fractionation technology. AISRF funding has been critical, supporting the purchase of new equipment, the upscaling of pilot plants, and the recruitment and retention of expert staff.