AgBioEn to produce fuel from biomass by the end of next year

By Madi Chwasta

Renewable energy facility AgBioEn will start producing fuel from agricultural waste by the end of next year, as construction of the Katunga facility continues unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

AgBioEn chief executive officer Peter Holmgren said the first phase of the project — representing 25 per cent completion of the facility — would be finished in late 2021 allowing the beginning of fuel production.

This phase would allow the start of renewable fuel production at the facility, resulting in the creation of more than 500 jobs.

The $2 billion facility would then be fully complete in the following 12 to 18 months, assuming the COVID-19 impact remains small.

“We are obviously continuously assessing COVID-19 impacts and may see some minor delays in relation to international services and manufacturing, (but) so far so good,” Mr Holmgren said.

The Katunga plant will take biomass — such as waste resulting from harvesting corn, oats and hay — and transform it into fuel using pyrolysis technology combined with a Fischer-Tropsch ‘gas-to-liquid’ process.

Mr Holmgren said the Katunga facility was the first in Australia to use these established methods together to produce biofuel, and the first in the world to employ it at this large a scale.

“We have tested it, and others have — we know it works.”

The renewable fuel would then be supplied to Australian businesses and the public, including bio-jet fuel for airlines and airports, and renewable diesel to the transport industry.

The facility plans to also supply local business with captured CO2, and renewable electricity produced on-site, including neighbouring hydroponic tomato growers Katunga Fresh.

Mr Holmgren said a third party assessment found the facility would save an estimated 500 tonnes of Co2 from entering the atmosphere for the 150 million litres of fuel it is expected to produce per year.

“(This was calculated by) comparing our operations — from farm to fuel — with production from oil wells, through shipping, refining and distribution of fossil fuel equivalent products,” he said.

The company aims to source the fuel feedstock from 75 000 ha of land by 2023, with the aim to eventually purchase, lease or share more than 2.5 million ha of farmland across Australia.

The $2 billion project had initial funding of an undisclosed amount from Chinese venture capital fund Tsing Capital.

But Mr Holmgren said they were a "relatively small investor" compared with other Australian and international investors.

“Tsing (Capital) was instrumental in providing funding for those early development stages,” he said.

“But the shareholder register has evolved over time — Tsing is a relatively small investor and shareholder.

“More than 80 per cent of the share register at the moment is held by Australian shareholders and going forward, it will probably be more so where the money will come from.”

He said the identity of major Australian and international investors was confidential and would be "subject to future announcements".

While AgBioEn has partnered with local education providers, including La Trobe University Shepparton and GOTAFE, to establish a workforce, Mr Holmgren said the company had ambitions to grow within Australia and expand globally.

“We have big plans for Australia, but they are not limited to here either.

“Our technology and our solutions are suitable to take around the world.”