From trash to treasure

Image of rainforest

By Fran Molloy

Professor Thomas Maschmeyer is making liquid fuels out of waste products and non-edible crops in a project that could have world-changing benefits.

Imagine the possibilities of turning the waste from natural products into oils, plastics, paints and other high-demand materials. That’s the vision that Professor Thomas Maschmeyer and his team are bringing to reality as they exploit the potential of materials such as seaweed and forestry waste. Their four-year, $10-million collaboration with the CSIRO is engaging in real-life, save-the-world science with potentially huge economic benefits for Australia.

“We have a finite planet and we need to use our materials as well as we possibly can.”

Professor Maschmeyer (BSc ’91 PhD ’95), an ARC Future Fellow in the University’s School of Chemistry, last year opened a commercial demonstration plant that turns two tonnes of wood-waste into chemicals and fuels. Through a method called “hydrothermal upgrading”, it uses water, high pressures and high temperatures to process the waste, which otherwise would be sent to landfill.

With Australia’s crude oil refining capacity diminishing and refineries shut down, we are now importing more expensive, ready-made fuels rather than refining them from imported crude oil, Professor Maschmeyer explains, adding that this is already negatively impacting our balance of trade.

“Refineries don’t just make fuels, they make bulk chemicals, or chemical feedstocks, which are used to produce resins, films, plastics, paints and so on. But with less feedstock available locally, the Australian chemical industry is under threat because production is then less viable and companies can’t compete internationally,” he says.

“We’re aiming to make renewable bio-based chemical feedstock to help our $19 billion chemical industry to stay in Australia.”

The new process is a far more sustainable prospect than current first-generation biofuels that are based on vegetable oils, which could potentially jeopardise human food security.

Image of Professor Maschmeyer

Following the completion of his PhD in 1994, Professor Maschmeyer spent several years working in the UK and the Netherlands. He returned to Australia with his family at the invitation of the University of Sydney to take up a research position in 2003 and is enthralled by the potential to resolve huge, worldwide resource problems through chemistry and chemical engineering.

“We have a finite planet, we need to use our materials as well as we possibly can, and I feel chemical engineers can take the discoveries of the chemists and apply them in the real world to make a real difference,” he says. “That’s basically been the theme of my professional life.”