Leaf says fossil fuel era is ending

ASX-listed energy firm Leaf Resources claims its new biomass process could nudge fossil fuel-based chemicals and plastics out of the market.

Haydn Black

Even most renewable energy advocates admit there are problems with decarbonising the entire economy, with coking coal vital in steel production and hydrocarbons vital for plastics and fertilisers.

Neither fossil fuel is irreplaceable, but cost and ease of use give them a stranglehold on the market.

Leaf says it has had a “eureka” moment, with its new process using biodegradable glycerol promising the potential to revolutionise bio manufacturing on a global scale.

The firm claims almost every petroleum based chemical can be replaced by biomass, and given the market for biochemical is growing by 20% per annum, and expected to exceed $500 billion by 2017, it is a market it wants to tap.

Leaf’s Glycell process uses glycerol as a catalyst to make cellulosic sugars – the key component in bio-chemicals and bio-plastics – from biomass such as waste from agriculture.

And it does so for a fraction of the cost of technologies currently used as alternatives to fossil fuel-based industry processes, Leaf says.

“Glycell arrives at a time when government and industry leaders are strengthening their resolve to get rid of fossil fuels altogether,” the company said.

“The G7 recently announced its commitment to stop their use worldwide by the end of the century and many multinationals, including some of the largest food producers, are already embedding sustainable practises into their operations

“For example, Danone is developing partnerships with second and third generation bio-plastics manufacturers, and Coca Cola is increasing its use of bio-plastics as part of its work to completely eliminate using non-renewable fossil fuels in its plastic bottles.”

Existing techniques used to create cellulosic sugars for conversion to products like bio-plastics don’t come close to the cost effectiveness of fossil fuel-based processes.

The best contender so far has been the dilute acid process. Dilute acid uses acid, high pressure and heat to produce cellulosic sugars from agricultural waste.

The dilute acid process takes 48 hours to produce cellulosic sugars, produces inferior quality sugars and at current market rates costs $230 per tonne.

Leaf says Glycell produces larger quantities of better quality sugars at a much faster rate for less than a quarter of the price – just $47/t – thanks to the fact that glycerol displaces water, which enables, at low temperature and pressure, the delicate chemical balance needed to produce quality cellulosic sugars.

This molecular quirk resolves the single biggest issue conventional bio-refining processes have never overcome.

It does away with complex and costly processes that require high temperatures and pressures to produce an inferior and far more costly outcome, Leaf says.

The Glycell process has another advantage in that it doesn’t use food as its feedstock either, which has been a major problem with biofuels.

The biomass used is predominantly waste – everything from crop stalks and stubble to hardwood offcuts – and its supply is almost limitless.

Leaf estimates there is five billion tonnes of biomass available worldwide, enough for $750 billion worth of cellulosic sugars, and much of the waste can be diverted from the agricultural industries that generate it and have to pay for its disposal.

Leaf calculates that Australia has enough biomass for 15 one million tonne bio-refineries.

Even the all-important catalyst in the Glycell process – glycerol – is biodegradable waste from bio-diesel production.

Another quirk of the Glycell process is glycerol purification and repurposing.

Bio-diesel waste is 80% glycerol.

After use in the Glycell process and recovery it is 99.7% pure, meaning it can be sold at a higher price for more refined industrial requirements.

“Glycell is the game changer that increases the viability of industrialising biology – an evolution that the USA National Academy of Sciences said will be as important in the next 50 years as semiconductors have been to economic growth over the last 50 years,” Leaf said.

The Glycell process is already attracting considerable interest from organisations committed to boosting their bottom line by removing fossil fuels from their operations.

Glycell looks set to do the same among the broader business community once its unique commercial benefits become more widely appreciated.