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The challenge

Realising the energy potential of waste

Bioenergy is the production of energy from biomass materials such as the by-products of agricultural, food and forestry industries, as well as domestic and industrial waste management systems. Bioenergy is a form of renewable energy, and the bioenergy resources currently utilised in Australia are generally limited to bagasse from sugar industries, gas from landfill sites and wood wastes from the processing of forestry products.

Bioenergy is the production of energy from biomass materials such as the by-products of agricultural, food and forestry industries, as well as domestic and industrial waste management systems. ©  CSIRO

Bioenergy currently accounts for just 0.9 per cent of Australia's electricity output – much lower than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 2.4 per cent. Australia is also the only OECD country that hasn't implemented a large-scale 'waste-to-energy' (WtE) scheme to manage its wastes via sustainable and environmental friendly methods.

Modern waste-to-energy plants are commonplace in Europe, East Asia and the US. They are clean, efficient and can significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by directly reducing methane emissions from landfill (which is roughly 30 times more potent than CO2), and offsetting emissions (which would have been produced if the power was made from coal or gas). Advanced systems, based on gasification, are now being deployed around the world, offering the opportunity to increase the penetration of renewables into the transport sector; gasification allows waste to be converted to a range of energy products, including transport fuels.

There are big opportunities to further develop our bioenergy capability to help decarbonise Australia's energy sector, while offering reliable baseload supply and reducing the amount of waste ending up in landfill. There are considerable cost, technical and social challenges to be addressed however, and that is where CSIRO plays a role.

Our response

Addressing technical barriers

We are researching a range of bioenergy applications. It's true that energy from waste is commonplace around the world, is an accepted part of waste management (particularly in Europe and Japan), and has been shown to meet even the strictest emissions limits. There are technical barriers, however, to the deployment of WtE in Australia, regardless of the technology chosen. Many of these are related to our understanding of waste streams from a thermochemical conversion perspective, and the implications these have on technology choice and performance.

We are working with local, state and federal governments to develop the tools and understanding required to reduce risks associated with feedstock quality and variability, and what this might mean for technology selection. We have a gasification research facility that can produce realistic gasification performance data for specific biomass feedstocks, which is supported by an array of specialised research tools and instruments that can provide unique insights into feedstock issues. And we are partnering with industry and technology developers to bring a strong technical component to developing projects and technologies.

Understanding Australian feedstocks

We maintain a publicly available database of Australian biomass and waste materials, containing chemical properties of samples from a range of sources, including agriculture, forestry, industrial processing and urban. The data in this database are sourced from our relevant projects related to biomass and waste utilisation, as well as appropriate sources supplied by our collaborators and stakeholders. This database contains information such as proximate analysis, ultimate analysis, calorific value as well as chemical composition of mineral matter to enable project proponents to draw conclusions as to likely plant capacity and annual output, as well as possible technology pathways.

This database is an important tool for identifying and managing the risks associated with the diversity of biomass materials, their properties, and the implications these have for bioenergy technology choice and design. This database is a significant support to growing interest in increasing the use of bioenergy across Australia.

The database is available at Biomass Quality Database

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