A Gladstone oil refinery says it has found the solution to Australia’s tyre waste and fuel security problems.

Key points:

  • A central Queensland oil refinery has made biofuel from old tyres that can work in a standard diesel engine
  • Hopes are the production of the fuel, once commercialised, will help curb tyre waste and offer fuel security in the event of market failure
  • One passenger tyre will provide approximately two litres of diesel fuel

Southern Oil Refineries general manager Ben Tabulo said the company had successfully conducted large scale pilot tests on its biodiesel made from old tyres.

“[We’ve proven] renewable diesel can work in Australia’s engines and does have the same efficiency on the road,” he said.

“The renewable diesel … has been refined from post-consumer waste, mainly mixed tyre crude oil and refined into 100 per cent drop-in diesel.

“Our laboratory has shown this diesel is indistinguishable from fossil diesel and will give all the performance that you expect from fossil diesel.

“Today we’ve put renewable diesel made from tyres, into this engine … it is a normal engine as you would find it trucks and boats, there is nothing special about it.”

‘Tyres are a big waste problem’

Mr Tabulo said the production of the fuel, once commercialised, will help curb tyre waste.

“Tyres are a big waste problem in Australia and Queensland in general, with a dispersed population that’s also dependant on mining … this is a solution for that problem,” he said.

“Tyres are everywhere and waste tyres are difficult to deal with.

“We’ve seen fires started in tyre yards all around the country and that’s because they haven’t been handled properly and the problem actually hasn’t been dealt with.”

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) mechanical engineering Professor Richard Brown said the tyre biodiesel was killing two birds with one stone.

“… This fuel will be made from a waste material, if we can produce a fuel that is roughly the same as regular diesel, that is already a very good improvement for society at large,” he said.

“We’re dealing with a waste tyre problem … and we’re also creating employment.

“There’s a lot of positives in that.”

Australia’s fuel security

The Government’s Australian Petroleum Statistics publication, issued in November 2018 said Australia’s stockholdings would amount to 18 days of diesel supply in the event of market failure.

The Government is currently in the process of developing a strategy to meet its International Energy Agency (IEA) obligations to maintain 90 days’ worth of net petroleum stockholdings.

Professor Brown said the findings show that if Australia lost its overseas deliveries, diesel backups would be insufficient to meet demand.

“If we can produce some fuel at home that is most definitely good for fuel security,” he said.

“If you think about it, if the country ran out of diesel half of the transport in this country approximately, is using diesel.

“It’s all the interstate truck deliveries, couriers … I mean if all that ground to a halt, the country would be just about paralysed.”

Professor Brown said developing the technology and commercialising it in Australia is important.

“It’s much better than us just buying something that’s been developed overseas,” he said.

“We can develop it here, create jobs in research and then ultimately in employment and it’ll help the whole industry.

“This is a significant development in the usage of waste to help improve fuel security in this country and the next step will be for them to do a rigorous evaluation of the fuel for usage in an engine.”

Commercial potential

Mr Tabulo said all testing had confirmed that Southern Oil’s biodiesel had the potential to go commercial.

“One passenger tyre will give you approximately two litres of diesel,” he said.

“That’s your seven-kilogram tyre off your car, the mining tyres are obviously excessively bigger and they will give you much more diesel.”

Professor Brown said the claims made by Southern Oil were credible.

“It’s very believable that the process that’s proposed could produce the fuel that is suitable for regular diesel engine usage,” he said.

“In general engineering terms, what they’ve proposed is a quite feasible process.”

Scania is one of the largest producers of heavy vehicle and industrial engines globally.

Professor Brown said Southern Oil’s decision to work with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) was sensible.

“They’ve got an engine manufacturer who’s on board with them and giving their approval,” he said.

“You can make a fuel, but unless you have engine manufacturers approving it for use in their engines, nobody will want to buy your fuel.”

Does it stack up environmentally?

Mr Tabulo said the company was confident the biodiesel would create less emissions than fossil diesel.

“What we don’t want to do is solve one problem while we create another,” he said.

“Emissions off this machine will be tested and monitored both under constant mode and variable mode to at least meet the current standards for diesel emissions.”

Professor Brown said without testing the fuel himself he cannot put an exact figure on emissions.

“I would say that it is possible, with the system they’ve used to create a fuel that would have probably similar emissions to diesel,” he said.

“Not necessarily any worse, but I mean I doubt whether they’ll be 10 times better.”

Scania national manager Andre Arm said the new biodiesel was a game changer for sustainability.

“I think sustainable fuel is the future and no one can deny that there is a push worldwide to have a look at where we’re going with our conventional fuel,” he said.

“It shows Aussie ingenuity, it provides the possibility for fuel security and there’s the environmental benefit as well for sure.”

When will it be available?

The company said they hope to have the biodiesel commercially available as soon as possible.

“We’re moving into the demonstration stage end of this year, start of next year when we start talking about tens and millions of litres of production,” Mr Tabulo said.

“That sounds like a big number, but Australia consumes 24 billion litres of diesel a year, so it is available at 10 to 20 million, but it doesn’t satisfy Australia’s demand.”

Mr Tabulo said the company would complete rigorous testing on the biodiesel.

“The engine will be run for about 12 to 18 months as we go through several testing stages from basic engine componentry, right up to acceleration and deceleration of the engine,” he said.

“We need to know we can get the power when we want it and we can lose the power when we don’t need it.”

Professor Brown said theoretically, it would be possible to have the fuel in production within two years.

“From what I can see, they’ve got it to a pilot scale, they’ve made enough fuel to put in an engine,” he said.

“Obviously if they want to start producing enough fuel for a whole fleet of engines, you’ve got to have a factory rather than just a small developmental facility.

“Building a factory takes about a year, getting all the approvals, getting it all refined, getting it finalised, would take another year … they’re well down the track.

“But how long exactly that’s a hard one … I can believe it’s a matter of years, but it’s certainly less than 10 years.”