Mallee trees to provide biomass for Virgin Australia sustainable aviation biofuel venture in Western Australia
Planting mallees can be a good option for Australian wheatbelt farmers (photo: Oil Mallee Australia)
Wed 13 July 2011 - Virgin Australia is to partner with renewable fuel technology and agriculture interests to develop a sustainable aviation biofuel project in Western Australia. The consortium plans to use pyrolysis technology developed by Canadian company Dynamotive Energy Systems to process mallees, a species of eucalypt tree that can be grown sustainably in many parts of Australia. The consortium is currently finalising plans for a demonstration unit that will make biofuels for testing, certification and public trials. The unit is intended to be operational in 2012, followed by construction of a commercial-scale plant that could be operational as early as 2014, says the airline. Jet biofuels derived from pyrolysis have not yet been approved for commercial aviation use but is a pathway undergoing due process by certification body ASTM International, which last week approved blended hydrotreated oil-based alternative fuels.
Dynamotive has invested in excess of $100 million over the past 10 years in developing its fast pyrolysis technology from bench-scale through to commercial-scale plants in Canada.
“We have a great opportunity to develop a sustainable industry in Western Australia capable of producing second generation fuels that do not require food sources and have positive effects on land and water management,” says Dynamotive CEO Andrew Kingston.
According to Kevin Goss, CEO of the Future Farm Industries Co-operative Research Centre, which is leading the mallees commercialisation, the tree can be planted in balance with crop and livestock production in Australia’s wheatbelt region.
“As well as becoming a source of biomass for renewable energy, they offer protection from wind erosion, help to avoid dryland salinity and provide improved livestock shelter. They even provide habitat for native birds and mammals,” he claims.
“However, for mallee biomass to provide a diversified income stream to farmers it requires new processors entering the market and a sharp reduction in supply chain costs through technological change. This alliance opens up a new industry development path.
“Just imagine if this takes off – Australian mallees fuelling jet engines; a double win for environmental sustainability with airlines running on fuel the production of which actually benefits the environment and farmers. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
The company says more than 1,000 farmers have planted mallees in belts on their farms, mainly in Western Australia, and will be bringing a prototype hardwood biomass harvester, the world’s first it says, to the state for wide-scale demonstrations later this year.
A fourth member of the consortium is Renewable Oil Corporation, which is Dynamotive’s Australian partner and develops pyrolysis biofuel projects in the country. The privately-funded company has investors in Australia, Canada and Europe.
Commenting on the project, Virgin Australia CEO John Borghetti said: “Over the past few years we have been working with stakeholders across the industry to research and develop bio-derived renewable fuels that can be used to progressively replace conventional aviation fuels.
“We believe this new project has great potential given the results with the technology and the availability of this unique Australian feedstock. It is also particularly attractive to Virgin Australia because it aligns with our commitment to supporting the Australian economy and environment, and encouraging Australian innovation.”
A recent report by CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), Australia’s national science agency, demonstrated in a roadmap scenario how the Australian aviation sector could achieve a 5% biofuel share in their total fuel use by 2020, expanding to 40% by 2050. The report concluded there should be sufficient local biomass to support 46% of aviation biofuel needs by 2020 and over 100% by 2050 (see article).