Innovative energy partnership putting waste to good use

Dr Prasad Kaparaju with Utilitas CEO Fiona Waterhouse

Food waste and garden clippings could be turned into clean energy, instead of adding to the 20 million tonnes of organic waste that end up in landfill in Australia each year, thanks to a collaboration between Utilitas and Griffith University.

Utilitas Pty Ltd — a Queensland-based biogas energy developer — has partnered with the university to develop advanced biogas technologies and processes aimed at recovering energy, nutrients and water from organic waste.

While the project is initially focused on cane trash and other crop waste, once the economics of the initiative are proven on a large scale, the technology will be applied to other organic waste like lawn clippings and garden cuttings.

Griffith School of Engineering lecturer Dr Prasad Kaparaju said the project could have huge ramifications for Queensland and Australia, which had been slow to catch on to the biofuels revolution happening around the world.

“More than half of the organic waste from domestic and industrial sources that is deposited in landfill in Queensland each year, could instead be used for clean energy generation if the project moves from concept to commissioning stage,” he said.

Australia is currently a small biogas producer, producing 127 million cubic metres of biogas per year from only 41 biogas plants. Biogas contributes to about 2% of the total renewable electricity capacity in Australia.

Dr Kaparaju said the rising costs of energy prices were proof that Australia needed to ramp up its involvement in the biofuels industry and this project was a step towards that.

“Since 2007 electricity prices in Australia have increased by 70%, creating a need for alternatives,” he said.

World biogas leader Germany has 8,000 biogas plants with 4 GW of installed capacity — supplying more than 8 million households with clean, renewable “organic” energy each year. The German biogas industry employs 40,000 people and contributes $11.25 billion to the economy.

Utilitas CEO Fiona Waterhouse said the organisation had decided to partner with Griffith University because it was a leading researcher in the biofuels area.

“Utilitas is moving its Biomethane Potential (BMP) testing equipment to Griffith University because we see them as leading researchers in this area. Griffith’s energy, facilities and intellectual rigour are all factors,” she said.

“The university is also well connected on a local level and that is important to us. It means we can consolidate our capability, equipment and testing services to support our vision of a world-class laboratory assisting the growth of the emerging biogas industry in Australia with research.

“Together we can scale up laboratory results to a large-scale biogas plant design and operation.”

Dr Kaparaju, who is also working on biofuels projects involving bioethanol and biohydrogen at the university, said the partnership between Utilitas and Griffith would be valuable for both parties.

“Utilitas is a leading biogas energy developer, looking to develop new concepts and construct biogas plants to treat a wide range of feedstocks and develop innovative high-value byproducts. So the business collaboration makes sense for the university,” he said.

“But it also carries the bonus of intensive, high-level research, which will require top scientists and graduate student researchers.”

The agreement was shaped by Griffith Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation office, which facilitates a greater connection between business-led innovation and leading research, and has been doing so for several years.