How this Mackay biorefinery is turning waste into profit

July 2020

Scientists from Queensland University of Technology are turning Mackay's biowaste into products rivalling petrochemicals

If you live in the Mackay Isaac Whitsunday region, you will know full well that our region is surrounded by lush, green cane fields. 

But you might not be aware that one of the by-products from sugar cane production called bagasse is becoming one of our most important commodities.

If you haven’t heard of it before, bagasse is the excess fibre found in sugar cane once the juice has been extracted. Bagasse is commonly used by sugar mills to provide processing heat and power, but what’s left over often ends up being burnt inefficiently as excess heat and energy.

Excess bagasse can be used to supply power to the grid which is what the Racecourse Mill currently does, but researchers from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have found other commercial applications for the humble bagasse with the potential to launch a new manufacturing industry.

At QUT’s Mackay Renewable Biocommodities Pilot Plant, scientists are producing environmentally friendly bioproducts like transportation fuel, building materials, animal feed and plastics using sugarcane bagasse and other sugar bio-chemicals.

Biorefineries like the Mackay pilot plant help researchers and companies examine new ways to convert biomass to fuels, power and value-added chemicals with the potential to generate new revenue streams for local businesses.

 

Facility Manager Dr Jo-Anne Blinco believes biorefineries have the potential to add billions of dollars to the Queensland economy and bring manufacturing jobs to regional communities.

“Agricultural producers often rely on limited sources of income that are vulnerable to environmental and economic shocks.

“Biorefineries like the Mackay pilot plant help develop new products using sugarcane co-products, which can diversify revenues and stabilise cash flows throughout the year,” Dr Blinco said.

QUT researchers are constantly exploring ways to create affordable and environmentally friendly alternatives to petrochemicals. The Mackay pilot plant fills the gap between academia and practice by creating pilot biorefinery programs that convert biomass into new products.

In another pilot project, sugarcane bagasse is converted into animal feed fibre and prebiotics through a separate treatment process. Researchers are investigating the potential to supplement these materials into animal feeds in combination with probiotics that have been isolated from the bagasse. This example of upcycling, where waste materials are transformed into new products, creates an affordable animal feed that has the potential to eliminate the need for antibiotics.

Textiles are also being processed at the Mackay pilot plant to separate cotton and polyester for recycling in the fashion and textile industries.

Globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles goes to landfill each year with only a small fraction being recycled. Textiles alone account for 10 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions and up to 3 per cent of landfills.

In 2018, QUT began a partnership with clean technology company BlockTexx to create a new process that could separate cotton and polyester found in discarded clothes.

The proprietary technology enables BlockTexx to generate new products using waste that would have otherwise ended up in landfill.

Dr Blinco believes biotechnologies can support thousands of jobs and benefit primary producers in the region. 

“The world is moving towards a circular economy, where waste is reduced and reused.

“Once industries start to look at their own outputs and waste differently, we’ll see a lot of added value to the local economy.”

Want to explore the pilot plant for yourself? Click on the 3D tour below from any device.

 

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