As Sugar Demand Falls, Gene Editing Could ‘Reinvent’ Sugarcane as Green Energy

Sugar has long been a source of energy for people, but now scientists believe they are close to unlocking its DNA secrets and harnessing its potential as a green fuel.

As demand for the sweet stuff in food takes a tumble, its ‘reinvention’ as a source of green energy could protect the $2 billion industry — if the development of biofuels attracts enough investment.

Sugarcane, like this grown at Meringa Research Station, can be converted into chemicals that can be used in everything from cosmetics to car parts.

The University of Queensland is conducting the first gene-editing experiments that could tailor the sugarcane plant to better produce biofuels and bioplastics.

Director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, Robert Henry, is working with a global team to sequence the sugarcane genome as part of a joint project with the Genome Institute based in the US.

Having sugar’s genetic template will allow us to look at growing sugarcane as a biofuel and a source of 100 per cent recyclable bioplastic, making it a substitute for petroleum in the production of countless items from cosmetics to car parts. When sugar is made, the bamboo-like grass is crushed and resulting liquid is crystalised and refined to produce the sweetener used in food and drinks.

The process leaves behind the fibre, known has bagasse, that factories already burn to generate electricity. But this fibre can also be further processed into much more complex products, which Professor Henry said was where the potential for a green revolution lay.

Professor Henry said understanding the plant’s DNA would speed up the transition from lab experiment to commercial products. “We’re looking at really using sugarcane as a replacement for things like oil, to produce those chemical feedstocks that we traditionally get from oil, so we provide a renewable alternative.”

Proving the Economics
Each year around 35 million tonnes of sugarcane is harvested in Australia, bringing in $2 billion in export earnings and providing employment for about 40,000 people, mostly in Queensland.

Professor Robert Henry, Director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation, is helping to map sugarcane's DNA.

But the industry is struggling with profitability — both in demand and prices, which are falling while input costs are rising. It means many growers are keen to see alternative uses for their cane developed, if the economics stack up.

In Gladstone in central Queensland, QUT senior research fellow Darryn Rackemann is working on a pilot plant to do just that. Working with US company Mercurius Biorefining, the product being developed in Gladstone could produce renewable fuels for use in diesel or jet engines in as little as five years’ time.

Sugarcane waste is abundant in Queensland and could represent a reliable source of future fuels.

“It’s a little bit different to bio-ethanol, which requires a bit of extra equipment to get it into our fuel systems. The fuels that will be made from the Mercurius process are simply dropped into existing refineries.”

“The beauty about making renewable fuels is that they can use the existing infrastructure,” Dr Rackemann said.

Canegrowers and the Milling Council have demanded greater funding for bioenergy, saying their bagasse and ethanol products are a reliable, renewable baseload power for Australia yet virtually ignored by governments.

The Mercurius project was partially funded by the Queensland Government’s $150 million Jobs and Regional Growth Fund, as part of its bid to develop a $1 billion biofutures industry by 2026.

Dr Rackemann said, in the long run, making fuel from sugarcane would have a dual benefit — supporting regional communities where traditional industry was struggling, and providing clean, green fuel to protect the environment.

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