Patented fibre-to-ethanol technologies in AU$20 million trial

Production time and the cost of fuel ethanol could be slashed using new patented technologies that are undergoing commercial development trials in Australia.

Australia’s Ethanol Technologies Limited (Ethtec), a Willmott Forests Limited company, today announced that work had begun on a three-year AU$20 million project designed to commercialise the patented fuel ethanol production process.

International patents protecting the United States and Australian developed technologies are held by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the University of Southern Mississippi and Australia’s Apace Research Limited.

Ethtec holds an exclusive worldwide licence to these patents.

Ethtec director and chief scientist Dr Russell Reeves says phase one of the four phase project at Harwood in the northern rivers region of New South Wales is attracting significant international interest.

Dr Reeves says that, if the commercialisation program is successful, production time could be slashed from “days to minutes” and fuel ethanol production costs dramatically reduced.

He says feasibility studies have concluded that fuel ethanol produced by the Ethtec process will have a crude oil equivalent cost in the range of US$36-50 per barrel (at exchange rate A$=US$0.88) when the ethanol is used in blends with petroleum fuels*.

This cost of ethanol, without government subsidies,  is highly competitive with the current cost of crude oil which is in the range of US$90-100 per barrel.

“Economically viable conversion of woody or fibrous materials to ‘cellulosic’ ethanol is internationally recognised as being the basis of an environmentally sustainable industry that is able to deliver this liquid fuel in the volume required to meet projected demand,“ Dr Reeves says.

“Quite apart from what’s happening in Australia, Sir Richard Branson has launched ‘Virgin Fuel’ which has announced plans to build or acquire plants to develop cellulosic ethanol.

“And, Microsoft chair, Bill Gates, has committed approximately US$80 million to the biomass ethanol industry.”

Willmott Forests Limited CEO Marcus Derham describes the value-adding potential for the plantation forest industry sector as “very exciting”.

“While we are pursuing this project conservatively with our sugar cane industry partners, the opportunity to add serious value to what has almost universally been treated as waste, is very, very compelling,” he says.

Dr Reeves says the production of ethanol from major food crops such as corn is distorting international markets and tying up vast areas of farm land in the United States and Europe, while delivering no significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Studies have shown that all of Australia’s liquid fuel demand could be met by ethanol produced from fibrous biomass … without interfering with food production or causing land or other environmental degradation,” he says.

“The Ethtec process brings distinct environmental and production advantages over other ethanol production processes.”

Major advantages of the new process technologies, which are attracting Australian federal and state government interest, include:

• Greenhouse gas reduction. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that use of fuel ethanol properly produced from woody or fibrous biomass results in almost no carbon dioxide emission.

• Positive energy balance for ethanol production. The Ethtec process converts fibrous biomass to ethanol and generates surplus electricity from combustion of the lignin co-product.

• Closed loop water cycle. The process captures production water and other liquids and treats and recycles them.

• Use of waste fibre as feedstock. The process enables the use of abundant supplies of waste fibre from existing industries, particularly sawmill wood residue and sugar production waste know as bagasse.

“Phase one of the pilot plant project involves a new hydrolysis process that converts components of the fibre to low cost pentose and hexose sugars in minutes compared to days for enzymatic hydrolysis processes,” according to Dr Reeves.

“These sugars can be used for the production of ethanol, bio-plastics and other renewable chemicals and as alternative sugars in some traditional sucrose markets.”

Dr Reeves is an internationally respected research scientist who has been involved for the past 30 years in international projects on the development of new technologies for the production and use of ethanol as fuel.

He obtained his PhD in Chemistry in 1978 from the University of Newcastle.  He is the inventor of technologies relating to the conversion of ‘lignocellulosic’ materials to ethanol.

Dr. Reeves is also the inventor of ‘diesohol’ technology that enables the use of hydrated ethanol-diesel blends in existing diesel engines.


“The ability to efficiently use ethanol in diesel engines, in addition to use in petrol engines, is necessary in order to reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions arising from using diesel fuel,” he says.

The new Ethtec pilot plant is being constructed alongside the historic Harwood Sugar Mill on the Clarence River in northern NSW, Australia.

The individual new technology processes to be brought online at the new plant during the next three years include:

• Phase one: hydrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass

• Phase two: production of sugars and lignin

• Phase three: fermentation of sugars to ethanol

• Phase four: ethanol recovery and process water recycling

“Our aim is to commercialise production of highly cost competitive fuel ethanol from lignocellulosic materials without using steam distillation and without generating large volumes of noxious effluent,” according to Dr Reeves.

“Results from the critical first two phases of the project are expected to be available within 18 months and commercialisation can follow quickly thereafter.”

* Feasibility studies have concluded that with an assumed initial capital investment of AU$70 million for a 50 ML/annum commercial scale plant, a 30 year plant life, 10 per cent IRR and a lignocellulosic feedstock cost of AU$50/dry tonne, the ethanol production cost using the proposed new process would be in the range of A$0.34-0.44/L. This corresponds to a crude oil equivalent cost of around US$36-50 per barrel (at exchange rate A$=US$0.88) when the ethanol is used in blends with petroleum fuels.

Photo: Ethtec director and chief scientist Dr Russell Reeves and his mountain of wood and sugar mill residue in northern NSW, Australia.

Earthrace powers on

Having successfully completed massive repairs, the world’s fastest eco-boat Earthrace has departed from Singapore to Cochin, India to complete its attempt to break the world record for circumnavigating the globe in a powerboat.

Earthrace, a 24m tri-hull wavepiercer that operates on biofuel, is still more than 1,550 miles ahead of the world record pace, set by the British Cable and Wireless team in 1998, despite the delays for repairs.

A number of companies, such as POSH SEMCO, Assetton and its project sponsor J B Global, stepped forward to provide Earthrace with support for expedient repairs for damages sustained in Palau, which were carried out in three days.

Skipper Pete Bethune said: “We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity we’ve received in Singapore. After the accident in Palau we began to doubt whether we still had a shot at the world record, but now the boat is back in top shape and weather conditions for the leg to Cochin are great.”

Mr Bethune said the attempt was to show the world the potential for sustainable fuels and if the voyage proceeds as planned, Earthrace would be able to finish the trip 17 days ahead of the world record.

The boat’s up-to-date progress can be viewed via the live satellite tracker at


Air New Zealand to fly on biofuel

Air New Zealand has announced it will be the first airline in the world to use biofuel extracted from the plant jatropha when a test flight takes place later this year.

In the race to become the world’s most environmentally sustainable airline, the company also said it expects to replace at least one million barrels of fuel, equivalent of 10 per cent of its annual fuel needs, with biofuel by 2013.

Chief executive officer Rob Fyfe said: “Air New Zealand is absolutely committed to being at the forefront of testing environmentally sustainable fuels for use in aviation and we are confident that our hard work with partners like Boeing…will see a step change sooner than many people realise.

“Studies have already shown that sustainable fuels can lead to a significant reduction in carbon emission with a 40-to-50 per cent lower carbon footprint on a lifecycle basis.”

The airline expects to conduct the test flight with the airline’s Boeing 747-400 Rolls Royce using fuel sourced from jatropha, depending on final regulatory approvals and testing by the engine manufacturer.

Jatropha, a plant that grows in south-east Africa and India, produces seed that contains inedible oil that can be converted into fuel.

Mr Fyfe said the airline has been non-negotiable about the three criteria – social, technical and commercial – any alternative fuel must meet for its test flight program.

“Jatropha satisfies all our criteria and furthermore, it is likely to be available in the necessary commercial quantities to meet our needs within five years,” he said.

“We have already had offers from organisations in Asia and Africa willing to guarantee enough supply to meet our 2013 target.”

He said using the biofuel could be a cost-effective option for the aviation industry as costs for jatropha are 20 to 30 per cent lower than oil prices.

The airline is also considering using algae-produced biofuel for testing.

Mr Fyfe said the company is seeking partnerships to build a suitable supply chain model.

“We are quite open to working with like-minded partners, including the New Zealand Government, on the development of refinery and delivery opportunities,” he said.

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