BIOFUTURES INDUSTRY FOR THE ATHERTON TABLELAND: WORLD-FIRST AGRICULTURAL PROJECT OF STATE SIGNIFICANCE
10 July 2017
The sugarcane industry is set to fundamentally change in Far North Queensland following an announcement today by the Minister for State Development, Dr Anthony Lynham, of State Government support of MSF Sugar’s Biorefinery Project on the Atherton Tableland.
Once operational, MSF Sugar’s Biorefinery Project will be a world first initiative that will see the company produce sugar, green base load electricity and ethanol from one location, with all three products manufactured through the effective and efficient use of biomass materials grown locally on the Atherton Tableland.
Supporting the project through the State Government Biofutures Acceleration Program (BAP), the announcement by Minister Lynham recognises the MSF Sugar Tableland Biorefinery Project as one that will deliver on the Government’s vision to develop an industrial biotechnology and bioproducts sector in Queensland. Still in its infancy, the sector requires substantial research investment to uncover innovative scientific and industrial technologies designed to convert sustainable waste into bioproducts.
Minister Lynham’s announcement took place earlier today at MSF Sugar’s Tableland Mill during a media event on the construction site of another of the company’s major step-change projects, that being it’s Green Energy Power Plant which is scheduled for completion in 2018.
The Government support obtained through the BAP will be used by MSF Sugar to complete a farm to market feasibility study that examines all areas of the value chain relating to the establishment of a Biorefining industry on the Atherton Tableland, effectively fast-tracking the company’s plans to diversify the industry.
MSF Sugar’s Biorefinery Project builds on the company’s vision to build a biofutures legacy for the people of Far North Queensland, with estimates for the project predicting a doubling of revenue for the sugarcane industry and the creation of year-round, high-value and knowledge-intensive regional jobs. This will lead to a more diversified and durable economy, bringing both economic and environmental benefits to the Tableland region.
The Biorefinery will be an enhanced sugar mill consisting of four important sections; the sugar mill, an agave juice mill, the green power station and a distillery.
According to MSF Sugar CEO, Mike Barry, “diversifying income for the sugarcane industry is very important as we’re currently too reliant on the raw sugar price and we’re not obtaining full value from the cane.
“The crop we’re investigating to deliver on the project is blue agave, which is a new crop to Australia but it is extensively grown in Mexico to produce the drink tequila. The advantage of blue agave is that it grows in a climate similar to that of the dry tropic part of the Atherton Tableland, it produces around 400 tonne per hectare of bio-mass in 5 years, does not need irrigation, and you have a high amount of fermentable juice and fibre.
“The technology we’ll be using to process agave is similar to what we use in the sugar industry, so the crop has huge potential for helping us to transform the sugarcane industry”.
The sentiment is echoed by General Manager Business Development, Hywel Cook, who states that “through this project, we are transforming the business from a sugar business to a sugarcane business with multiple bio-products.
“The $60 million Biorefinery complex we propose to develop is expected to create 80 construction/farming and 50 operational jobs for the agribusiness sector, around 180 jobs and $97 million flow-on for regional businesses, produce 110,000 tonnes of raw sugar, 200,000 MW of green electricity for the grid and 55ML of ethanol biofuel annually. The green electricity will be base load generation operating 12 months per year using the fibre from the sugar cane and blue agave”.
The feasibility study funded through the BAP will consider all processes related to farming the new agave crop, making the biomass products (ethanol and electricity) and delivering the end product to market (customer acceptance). The findings will be used to assess the commercial viability of the project, and inform MSF Sugar’s decision on when to commence project construction.
While the announcement is significant for the agriculture sector, the Biorefinery Project will benefit the region as a whole as once operational, the refinery will work across the agriculture, energy and biofutures industries. It will also contribute to the broad economic development of rural Queensland with independent research* predicting the project will double the company’s contribution to the Tablelands Gross Regional Product from 2% to 4%.
To allow the biorefinery to operate 12 months of the year, MSF Sugar will continue to trial large-scale blue agave cropping thanks to the $250,000 grant received through the Queensland Government’s Biofutures Commercialisation Program late last month.
According to Mr Cook, “the overall project is a great example of what is possible in growing the right crop in the right place and then using all the plant material to make a variety of products. The great thing is we could continue transforming these products to make products such as plastics, bio-diesel and even bio jet fuel. And this will all be based from what we grow using a variety of different lands.
“This is a big opportunity to make a step-change from a sugar industry to a bio-refinery industry”.
The economic potential of growing and harvesting two crops is reinforced by MSF Sugar’s General Manager Agriculture, Mr Trevor Crook, who, together with Mr Cook, travelled to Mexico last month to tour Agave processing facilities, farms, and meet with research and university project teams.
“The blue agave crop will be grown and harvested on land that would traditionally need irrigation to produce a viable crop. This means we will soon be able to use dry agricultural lands to produce green base electricity, food and other useful products.
“All of this value-add will happen in Far North Queensland to establish a new and positive legacy for future generations in the region.”
MSF Sugar’s vision for the biofutures industry is substantial with plans to develop 4,000 ha of Tableland farmland into agave plantations. The crop will be developed at a rate of 800 ha per annum to ensure the project is sustainable.
Following completion of MSF Sugar’s blue agave pilot project and feasibility study, the first year of commercial planting is expected to take place in 2020. The goal is to plant 3.2 million plants per year with agave farming expected to be 800 hectares from MSF Sugar and 3200 hectares from independent farms.
As agave takes 5 years to grow, it is anticipated the first commercial harvest will take place in 2025 with crops harvested at a rate of 800 hectares per year with an anticipated yield of 400 tonnes per hectare.
To deliver on the company’s biofutures vision, MSF Sugar plans to commence construction of the distillery required to round-out the project in 2020, which will require an investment of around $100 million. At least two-thirds of the investment will be spent within Australia and the investment is on top of the $75 million the company has already invested in its Green Energy Power Plant construction.
MSF Sugar’s Biofutures Project is considered to be of state significance as when completed, it will help position Queensland as a leader in converting waste material from crops into highly valued bio-products.
Once proven successful, the model being developed by MSF Sugar can be replicated in other sugarcane growing regions that contain arid agricultural land. The Biorefinery can also be expanded to produce additional products, and has the flexibility to add other sub-processes to enable production of bio-plastics, animal feeds, and create a pathway to produce ethanol-based aviation fuels.
* Cummings Economics, MSF Sugar and the Mareeba Shire/Tableland Region, Economic and Social Impact Study, May 2017
For more information please contact:
MSF Sugar Communications Manager
Mob: 0417 043 954
Background Information for Media
- The tropical climate of Far North Queensland is a source of competitive advantage for the sugarcane industry. MSF Sugar’s Biorefinery Project will be built around growing and harvesting two crops that are ideal for both the wet and dry tropics: sugarcane for irrigated agricultural land and blue agave for non-irrigated agricultural land. On the Atherton Tableland, blue agave will enable growers to expand to the west and north of Mareeba, diversifying their income stream beyond sugarcane while requiring no irrigation to produce a similar amount of biomass to sugarcane.
- The Biorefinery will be an enhanced sugar mill consisting of four important sections; sugar mill, agave juice mill, green power station and a distillery. The power station and distillery will operate 12 months of the year, supplying bioenergy to the community and MSF Sugar’s own customers. Developing the refinery around two different crops is a world first project and therefore of State significance.
- “Biofutures” refers to the sector that develops and manufactures products from sustainable organic waste resources, rather than using fossil fuels. Still in its infancy, the industry requires substantial research investment to uncover innovative scientific and industrial technologies designed to convert sustainable waste into bioproducts.
- Bioethanol is traditionally produced as a by-product of the sugar milling process and while the product is of a high quality, production is limited by the seasonal nature of sugarcane which can only be harvested and processed for 6 months of the year. The combined biomass (fibre) obtained from sugarcane and blue agave will allow our power station to operate 12 months of the year. This will then facilitate year-round production of bioethanol, leading to the creation of additional bioproducts such as bioplastics, animal feeds, and ethanol-based aviation fuels in the future.
- In developing this project, MSF Sugar is at the forefront of the emerging biofutures industry, which refers to the sector that manufactures products from sustainable organic waste resources rather than using fossil fuels. Through the production of biofuels, bioplastics and biochemicals, the biofutures industry has the potential to transform the Far North Queensland economy.
- Blue agave is a new crop to Australia but is extensively grown in Mexico to produce the drink tequila. The advantage of blue agave is that it grows in a climate similar to that of the dry tropic part of the Atherton Tableland, it produces around 400 tonnes per hectare of biomass in 5 years, does not need irrigation, and provides a high amount of fermentable juice and fibre.
- MSF Sugar’s Biorefinery will have flexibility as the plant will contain two front-end processing facilities to separate sucrose, fermentable juice and fibre. In future, the company will be able to receive other crops and transform the juice and fibre into more than just ethanol and green electricity. Products such as plastics, other fuels and other foods will be able to be produced using bio-based materials.
- MSF Sugar’s Biofutures Project takes a triple bottom line approach to reinvigorating the sugarcane industry:
Economic: crude oil markets are unstable, raw sugar prices are volatile, and long-term projections indicate that rising costs of electricity put the industry at risk in relation to ‘business as usual’ activities. Diversifying into steam-powered green electricity and the production of bioproducts in addition to raw sugar and molasses spreads the risk and leads to a stronger economic base for growers and the broader industry.
Environmental: industry reliance on fossil fuels for base load power and farm vehicles has a negative impact on climate change. Access to green base load electricity and a range of ethanol-based fuels will help minimise the industry’s contribution to carbon emissions.
Social: in providing the community with choice in relation to electricity and fuel sources, the industry maintains its Social License to Operate and meets customer demand for environmentally friendly products. Through MSF Sugar’s Biorefinery Project, the sugarcane industry has the potential to make all of the products currently being produced from coal.
For timeline summaries and product pathway details, refer also to the Biofutures Media Backgrounder.