Sustainability research supports a greener future for Australia
Professor Graham 'Gus' Nathan
The University of Adelaide is one of Australia’s most research-intensive institutions. Over 1,800 research staff work individually and collectively to address some of the biggest challenges facing the world today.
Currently the University contributes research expertise towards several ground-breaking projects aimed at creating a more sustainable future for Australia. New developments in technology mean we are closer than ever to a renewable biofuels industry, with an Australian-first demonstration plant at Whyalla set to produce 30,000 litres of green crude per year.
There have also been major advancements in the way we capture, store and use the sun’s energy – a plentiful resource in Australia. The University is also exploring how adopting more sustainable business practices and creating greener cities can influence the cost of business and the impacts on workforce productivity.
Creating a new type of crude oil
Renewable fuels company Muradel, co-founded by the University of Adelaide, could help Australia become a world leader in biofuels production.
Led by Associate Professor David Lewis (BE 1999, PhD 2004), Muradel is a joint venture between the University of Adelaide, Adelaide Research and Innovation (the commercial development company of the University of Adelaide), Murdoch University, and commercial partner SQC.
Australia’s first demonstration plant producing sustainable fuels launched in Whyalla in October 2014. Using Muradel’s Green2Black technology, the plant sustainably converts microalgae produced on site, plant biomass and organic waste into green crude.
Within minutes Muradel’s energy-efficient water reactor converts biomass into a green crude oil equivalent to fossil crude.
Standard oil refining then produces a cost effective and environmentally-friendly transport fuel which could replace the fuels we use today.
"Green crude is exactly the same as fossil crude. The only difference is that green crude is renewable," David said.
"We are also working towards renewable diesel and jet fuel which could transform the transportation industry."
The $10.7 million demonstration plant will produce 30,000 litres of green crude per year. It is a first step towards a commercial plant with the potential to produce more than 50 million litres of sustainable fuels per year.
Muradel plans to open its first Australian commercial plant by late 2017.
Harnessing the sun’s energy
The University’s Centre for Energy Technology (CET) has positioned itself at the forefront of concentrating solar thermal power research and development.
Under the leadership of Professor Graham ‘Gus’ Nathan (BE (Hons) 1984, PhD 1989), CET leads the Solar Fuels project which forms part of the Australian Solar Thermal Research Initiative (ASTRI).
ASTRI brings together leading partner CSIRO with solar thermal research partners from six Australian universities as well as collaborators from the United States.
The aim of the Solar Fuels project is to reduce the operating and maintenance costs of concentrating solar thermal (CST) power stations.
To produce CST power, mirrors are used to concentrate sunlight between 50 and 2000 times its normal strength. The reflected sunlight is directed along a pipe filled with a fluid or particles and heated to a high temperature.
Using inbuilt storage capacity, the heated fluid or particles are captured and stored as thermal energy in a gas liquid or solid form.
This stored thermal energy is used in a turbine to produce electricity and can also be used to supply heat for industrial processes such as in timber, textile and paper processing.
While common household solar panels use sunlight to create electricity instantly, an alternative energy source is required when the sun isn’t shining.
However, stored thermal energy isn’t instantly transformed into electricity so has the advantage of being more flexible about how and when it is used.
CST stations will be most beneficial in outback environments where they can help power remote settlements, farms and industries.
Dr Woei Saw (BE 2004 PhD 2009) from the Centre for Energy Technology says that researchers working with the ASTRI solar fuels program are using this technology to produce a highly efficient and cost-effective solarised transport fuel.
"We have completed the first stage of the project – a six-month scoping study of various CST fuel technologies. The second stage is to provide a proof-of-concept of the proposed CST technologies," said Saw.
Greener cities to combat climate change
Dr Simon Divecha (PhD 2014) works at the University’s Business School and the Environment Institute. He has spent decades exploring how organisations can move towards more sustainable business practices.
Simon’s doctoral research looks at applying this knowledge to realise the changes required to attain a more sustainable and greener future.
Simon explains there is a resistance to change, despite the benefit of increased productivity and a cost reduction.
"Greener ways of thinking can reduce business costs. Cities are a great example. If we shade the buildings, the walls and the roads with more trees and plants, it reduces the heat absorbed during the day, lowering radiated heat at night."
"This can cut energy costs and carbon emissions as well as increase the quality of the air we breathe."
"A greener future makes economic sense, however the economic benefit is not enough for businesses and organisations to change. Transformational change usually requires a culture shift and a new way of thinking about sustainability."
"We need to consider the whole picture, not just part of it."
For buildings there are proven benefits for workforce productivity by enriching work environments with greener buildings and office green space.
People working in these environments are likely to be more productive than those in bare spaces without trees and plants.
Simon’s research titled Integral Action Loops provides strategies for businesses to help them increase their sustainability and reduce operating costs while supporting a greener future.
Story by Connie Dutton