Waste is piling up in Australian landfills at an exponential pace and “costing the economy and environment billions”, according to a CQUniversity researcher, but he believes he may have found a solution.

Postdoctoral research fellow Mohammed Jahirul Islam has completed pilot testing for a method that turns polystyrene, tyres, particle board, agriculture waste, other used plastics, and solid waste into commercial-grade petrol and diesel fuel.

“We can use this very low-grade solid waste that cannot be used in any other types of recycling [and] convert it into a useful product,” Dr Islam said.

He said the practice would generate revenue and reduce Australia’s dependency on imported fossil fuels.

“We are spending over $50 billion every year to process solid waste,” Dr Islam said.

A graphic breaking the physical process down with 17 labels.
Processing mixed landfill waste into fuel is a complex process.(ABC News: Lewi Hirvela)

Professor Mohammed Rasul, the project supervisor, said it was the first of its kind to reach this scale in Australia.

“Nobody has done all the mixed solid waste through pyrolysis, distillation and hydro treatment as far as I know,” he said.

“We are 100 per cent confident that we will get the product to a quality that is required for Australian standard diesel.”

Hands palm up holding bits of cut up plastic bottles, other waste in the background.
Plastic bottles are one of several products the team is processing into commercial-grade petrol and diesel fuel.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

How much would it cost?

Professor Rasul said its price was incomparable to standard diesel, but would become more competitive as production scaled up.

Ben Tabulo, the general manager of Renewable Southern Oil, said the project followed on from the “successful” work done with RMIT and CQU.

“We definitely see it as being a commercially viable process,” he said.

“[It] is generated from waste and so there are obviously incentives in place for waste processing — a lot of the uplift comes from that end of it.

“The fuel itself actually has no green premium associated with it.

“If you’re paying $1.30 for diesel from fossil, you would be paying $1.30 for diesel from renewable sources.”

Eight different types of solid waste next to nine jars of oil and fuel layed out on a table.
The project is turning polystyrene, tyres, waste plastic, particle board, and other mixed solid landfill waste into commercial-grade petrol and diesel fuel.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

Why isn’t it being used already?

Prasad Kaparaju, associate professor at Griffith University’s School of Engineering and Built Environment, said Australia was “20 years behind in this field” but it was catching up.

“It’s amazing how much change has come in the attitude of the industries especially, and also from the policy point of view,” he said.

The Bioenergy Australia member worked in Finland, Denmark and France, where the industry was more advanced, before arriving in 2014.

Associate professor Kaparaju wearing a blue button up, black suit jacket smiling, laboratory equipment and pipes behind.
Prasad Kaparaju, associate professor at Griffith University’s School of Engineering and Built Environment, has been in the industry for decades.(Supplied: Griffith University)

He said biogas would be essential, despite net-zero targets and a predicted rise in electric vehicle use.

“Biofuels will play a significant role during this transition period,” he said.

“You have to develop a lot of infrastructure for electric vehicles [but] with biofuels, it’s easy to fit into the existing infrastructure like gas stations because it’s just a liquid fuel.”

Dr Kaparaju said biofuels were “the immediate solution” to reducing the impact of greenhouse gases from the transport sector.

While passenger vehicles were already transitioning to electric, he said the aviation and cargo sectors would be much slower — keeping demand for biofuels high.

Liquid pouring out of a tap into a funnel being held by someone.
The project processes mixed solid waste through pyrolysis, distillation and hydro treatment.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

What happens next

Dr Islam was awarded an Advance Queensland Industry Research Fellowship of $360,000 from the state government in November.

With $1.8 million from the Cooperative Research Centre Projects, $500,000 from CQU, and further funding from partners Northern Oil and RMIT University, the team will enter the next phase.

“In the pilot testing we found that the quality of the fuel is close to commercial or conventional diesel or petrol fuel,” Dr Islam said.

“But still we don’t have any industry that will produce the amount of diesel and petrol from solid waste that has a low price and can also meet our national demand.”

Two jars, one with a dark brown liquid labelled plastic diesel cut, another clear liquid labelled plastic diesel.
Professor Mohammed Rasul says it is the first project of its kind to reach this scale in Australia.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

The researcher said the next step was to upgrade the technology to an industrial scale.

“We think we can put this fuel into diesel and petrol cars [for testing] within six months to one year,” Dr Islam said.

He said it would take at least three years for the biofuel to be available for purchase, but it could be scaled up to meet half of Australia’s demand.

‘Huge’ potential for economy and environment

Professor Rasul said commercial success relied on funding and investor interest.

He said it would convert waste into revenue-producing fuel with “near zero emissions”.

“We are converting [landfill] into pyrolysis and it is producing a significant amount of oil, which is 70 to 80 per cent oil and once you refine that you get at least 50 to 60 per cent oil,” he said.

“That means if you process one tonne [of landfill waste], you will get 500 litres of oil.

“That has quite good value, and that is also millions of dollars, so in terms of the circular economy for Australia, I think that means huge things.”

Dr Islam in a yellow hat and orange high vis shirt and Professor Mohammed in light blue button up, both holding fuel jars.
Dr Mohammed Jahirul Islam, Professor Mohammed Rasul and Dr Ashfaque Chowdhury (not pictured) are the CQU team working on the project.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

Mr Tabulo said it would create huge employment opportunities.

“You’ve got to get the oil to Gladstone, so you’ve got logistics jobs bringing it from all over Queensland, you’ve then got the landfill sites that are generating the crude,” he said.

“You’re talking about hundreds of jobs, if not more, thousands across the state.”

Extracted in full from: Landfill waste turned into commercial-grade petrol, diesel in CQUniversity project – ABC News