How cracking sugar's DNA could help save the planet

This post was originally published on this site

Sugar has long been a source of energy for people, but now scientists believe they are close to unlocking its DNA secrets and harnessing its potential as a green fuel.

As demand for the sweet stuff in food takes a tumble, its ‘reinvention’ as a source of green energy could protect the $2 billion industry — if the development of biofuels attracts enough investment.

The University of Queensland is conducting the first gene-editing experiments that could tailor the sugarcane plant to better produce biofuels and bioplastics.

Director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, Robert Henry, is working with a global team to sequence the sugarcane genome as part of a joint project with the Genome Institute based in the US.

“Having sugar’s genetic template will allow us to look at growing sugarcane as a biofuel and a source of 100 per cent recyclable bioplastic, making it a substitute for petroleum in the production of countless items from cosmetics to car parts.

“We’ll have a greater opportunity to think of more radical innovations to really reinvent sugarcane as a crop that has a much wider range of uses.”

Professor Robert Henry, Director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, is helping to map sugarcane’s DNA.

When sugar is made, the bamboo-like grass is crushed and resulting liquid is crystalised and refined to produce the sweetener used in food and drinks.

The process leaves behind the fibre, known has bagasse, that factories already burn to generate electricity.

But this fibre can also be further processed into much more complex products, which Professor Henry said was where the potential for a green revolution lay.

“What the innovation is going to do is get more value from that,” he said.

Professor Henry said understanding the plant’s DNA would speed up the transition from lab experiment to commercial products.

“I believe these things are possible within a relatively small number of years now,” he said.

“We already have the capacity to convert some of the sugar produced onsite in the mill into some of these products.

“So it is a matter of fully analysing the commercial opportunities now and choosing those that will maximise the value of growing a crop like this.”

Sugarcane, like this grown at Meringa Research Station, can be converted into chemicals that can be used in everything from cosmetics to car parts.

Proving the economics

Each year around 35 million tonnes of sugarcane is harvested in Australia, bringing in $2 billion in export earnings and providing employment for about 40,000 people, mostly in Queensland.

But the industry is struggling with profitability — both in demand and prices, which are falling while input costs are rising.

It means many growers are keen to see alternative uses for their cane developed, if the economics stack up.

In Gladstone in central Queensland, QUT senior research fellow Darryn Rackemann is working on a pilot plant to do just that.

“The science has been proven,” Dr Rackemann said.

“So we’re now looking at whether we can recover all the chemicals we use in the process and whether we can make these products economically viable.”

Working with US company Mercurius Biorefining, the product being developed in Gladstone could produce renewable fuels for use in diesel or jet engines in as little as five years’ time.

“The beauty about making renewable fuels is that they can use the existing infrastructure,” Dr Rackemann said.

“It’s a little bit different to bio-ethanol, which requires a bit of extra equipment to get it into our fuel systems.

“The fuels that will be made from the Mercurius process are simply dropped into existing refineries.”

Sugarcane waste is abundant in Queensland and could represent a reliable source of future fuels.

But before the trucking or mining industry can be fuelled by sugarcane, Dr Rackemann said there needed to be a significant increase in investment.

“Then there’ll be many, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars that’s required to get it to commercial scale.

“There’s some great ideas out there, but it’s only when you start getting to the pilot scale that you can go through the economics of these ideas.”

Industry ‘mystified’ at lack of investment

While politicians argue the merits of investing in more coal-fired power, sugar industry figures are mystified at the lack of attention biofuels are receiving despite the current crisis in national energy policy.

Canegrowers and the Milling Council have demanded greater funding for bioenergy, saying their bagasse and ethanol products are a reliable, renewable baseload power for Australia yet virtually ignored by governments.

The Mercurius project was partially funded by the Queensland Government’s $150 million Jobs and Regional Growth Fund, as part of its bid to develop a $1 billion biofutures industry by 2026.

Dr Rackemann said, in the long run, making fuel from sugarcane would have a dual benefit — supporting regional communities where traditional industry was struggling, and providing clean, green fuel to protect the environment.

“Developing this industry will be creating jobs in all these regional areas, providing opportunities to keep people in these regional areas, and an opportunity to develop their own skills,” he said.

“The second aspect is around the environmental benefits. These type of biofuels have a lot less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional petroleum fuels.

“It won’t be just one technology that can do everything. It will be multiple technologies all playing their part in developing this biofutures area.”

Log in or Register to save this content for later.