As politicians fight over climate change in Canberra, a plan to turn sugarcane waste into fuel is powering on in the heart of cane and coal country.

Just metres from a sugarcane mill that is supplying them with a byproduct from the crushing process, the pilot plant is about to flick the switch for the first time.

US company Mercurius has teamed up with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to trial the technology onsite in Mackay.

The plant uses bagasse, a byproduct from the crushing process, to create renewable products that not only reduce the need for fossil fuels but take CO2 from the atmosphere.

CEO and technology development director of Mercurius, Karl Seck, said it was an essential next step of the trial before they hope to start commercialisation.

“I’ve been accused of being too optimistic in the past but it’s possible we could start building commercial plants in three years’ time.”

From trash to gas

The equipment looks like an impossible maze of pipes and tanks.

It converts a range of biomass feed stocks, such as cane bagasse, into “drop-in” fuels that can be tailored to use as jet fuel or diesel, as well as bio-based plastics.

A man in hi-vis and an orange hard hat looks at the camera in front of grey pipes.
Karl Seck spent years working in the oil industry and said it’s past time for a renewables uptake.(ABC Rural: Melanie Groves)

Mr Seck said it was also a more cost effective and faster form of technology that currently exists.

“The sugarcane bagasse, which is what’s left over when you squeeze the sugar out of sugar cane, that’s the biomass that we feed into the top [of the machine],” Mr Seck said.

The first trial will run the equipment fully for three months.

“We’ve operated the equipment with water to make sure the equipment is leakproof and all the equipment operates properly,” Mr Seck said.

QUT’s Centre for Agriculture and Bioeconomy project leader Darryn Rackemann said it was the first time their facility has had equipment looking at chemical conversion technologies.

“This is the first stage of demonstrating this is feasible and can be potentially economical,” Dr Rackemann said.

“We’ll look at obtaining data so we can scale up the technology.”

Commercial solutions to global problems

While debate rages amongst the federal Coalition over climate change, projects such as those at QUT’s biocommodities facility are offering potential commercially-viable technology for the future.

For Mr Seck, who spent his earlier career working in the oil industry in the United States, it is time to catch up.

Two men in hi-vis and hard hats hold bottles of fuel and bioplastics.
The process can create multiple products from fuel to bioplastics. (ABC Rural: Melanie Groves)

“We should have been doing this ten years ago,” Mr Seck said.

While commercial application is still several years away,  Mr Seck is excited about the potential benefits his technology could have.

“It could actually be carbon negative, so for every litre of fuel that you burn, diesel or jet fuel, you’re actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere because we can sequester carbon from our process,” he said.

Extracted in full from: Pilot plant turning sugarcane waste into jet fuel, diesel, plastics prepares to flick switch – ABC News