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Boral looking to turn sawmill residues into renewable diesel and green bitumen

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) has recently awarded up to AU$500 000 in funding to Boral Timber, a subsidiary of Australia-headed international construction and building materials group Boral Ltd, to investigate the feasibility of building a ‘second-generation’ biofuels refinery using sawmill residues from its hardwood sawmill at Herons Creek near Port Macquarie, New South Wales (NSW).

ARENA has awarded up to AU$500 000 in funding to Boral Timber to investigate the feasibility of building a ‘second-generation’ biofuels refinery using sawmill residues from its hardwood sawmill at Herons Creek near Port Macquarie, New South Wales (NSW). If built the biorefinery would convert up to 50 000 tonnes of sawmill residue into transport-grade renewable diesel and green bitumen, both products which would be used by Boral (photo courtesy ARENA).

ARENA’s Advancing Renewables Programme supports a broad range of development, demonstration and pre-commercial deployment projects that can deliver affordable and reliable renewable energy. Under the AU$1.2 million feasibility study, of which up to AU$500 000 will be provided by ARENA, Boral will explore the technical and financial viability of establishing a biorefinery using innovative technology.

Boral Timber currently operates six hardwood sawmills in New South Wales (NSW) and the study will also explore the potential regulatory hurdles to developing biorefineries in rural NSW. If shown to be feasible, it could lead to the construction of a second-generation biorefinery in rural NSW that would use sawmill residues from Boral Timber’s Herons Creek hardwood sawmill, near Port Macquarie.

The sawmill residue – which includes sawdust, remnant woodchips, shavings, and offcuts – is currently used by Boral Timber for lower value uses such as landscaping and boiler fuel. According to ARENA, sawmill and forest residues accounts for a major underutilised resource in the hardwood industry.

Novel conversion technology

The study will consider a proprietary Mechanical Catalytic Conversion (MECC) technology, developed by Spain-based Global Ecofuel Solutions SL, combined with the potential biorefinery and will be the first time the MECC process would be used in a commercial-scale facility.

The MECC technology uses low temperature, pressure and mechanical catalytic conversion to break long-chain hydrocarbon molecules into shorter chain liquid hydrocarbon products such as avgas, diesel, and bitumen. According to Global Ecofuel Solutions, renewable diesel fuel with cetan numbers between 42-60 can be obtained in this way from solid biomass at process temperatures of around 300ºC (572ºF).

ARENA points out that this is a “highly specialised process” that has yet to be developed into a full production scale facility. According to Ivor Frischknecht, CEO of ARENA, the project further shows that big businesses are increasingly moving towards renewable energy solutions.

The transport sector is a significant user of energy in Australia, with liquid fuels a key long-term energy source for heavy-vehicle road and air transport since they cannot readily be electrified. Bioenergy comprises a growing proportion of Australia’s energy mix, and this new technology could see residue from the production process be used to reduce Boral’s reliance on diesel and bitumen derived from fossil fuels, said Frischknecht.

ARENA will be working closely with Boral Timber to assess elements of the feasibility study to develop a knowledge sharing portfolio on the progress and lessons learned over the course of study.

If this ground-breaking technology is successful, we hope to see a transition to similar biorefineries by other companies which have a waste stream in forestry or agriculture, Frischknecht said.

15 percent of fuel demand

Boral is one of the largest consumers of bitumen and has one of the largest truck fleets in Australia, using approximately 100 million litres of diesel annually. According to Wayne Manners, Executive General Manager for Building Products at Boral, if the feasibility study is successful, the transport-grade renewable diesel produced at the potential new biorefinery could eventually account for up to 15 percent of Boral’s annual diesel needs.

Estimated to cost AU$50 million if built, Boral projects that the biorefinery would convert around 50 000 tonnes of sawmill residues per annum into approximately 16 million litres of renewable diesel and 8 000 tonnes of green bitumen.

The application of this technology has the potential to transform the way we use low-value hardwood sawmill residues into a resource that could be highly valuable not just to Boral but to the industry more generally, Manner said.

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