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BioFuel from Desert Plants: JCU drives growth in arid regions

6 February 2019

Townsville Bulletin
AusAgave CEO Don Chambers (left) with JCU's Professor Joseph Holtum

Work on agaves by AusAgave commenced in 2005 followed by registration of Australian Agave in 2011 by Don Chambers, its founder and CEO, an agricultural scientist with an interest in growing biomass appropriate for Australian conditions.  Don has conducted over a decade of research to test the marketability of using agave as a biomass feedstock to produce ethanol. Agave was chosen for its ability to thrive in harsh climates, ideal for the more marginal and arid areas of Australia. It is a versatile crop that is scalable, adaptable, pest- and disease-free, and produces high levels of sugar. Agave can also be used as biodegradable fibres.

The first ten years of research tested strains to monitor maturation periods and adaption to the Australian landscape. Don worked with Professor Joseph Holtum, a plant ecophysiologist and botanist at James Cook University, and successfully demonstrated viability.  AusAgave has now planted commercial crops, and developed mechanisation including harvesting machines. Work undertaken by JCU was paramount to fulfil the vision of AusAgave to introduce a suitable crop for Australian conditions that would be equal to or surpass Mexican yields of biomass and sugars. The measurements and observations performed by JCU provided independent data that could be benchmarked against data from Mexico and provide the basis for continued R&D by other Universities.

Chambers said, “it was the support and encouragement of Prof Holtum in those early days that provided the long-term commitment required to see this crop established as a genuine biomass source, suitable for the dryland growing conditions in Australia”. Professor Holtum states, “The agave industry is a game changer for biomass production in Queensland and Australia, and JCU is delighted to have been able to support this activity”.

There is an exciting future for AusAgave, providing biotechnological solutions towards making biodegradable materials and composites, and low cost industrial sugars. The agave industry for biofuels will boost employment in rural Australia and provide alternative crop options to Australian farmers in drought-prone areas. The partnership between AusAgave and James Cook University has been critical to creating this opportunity.

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JCU is a BHERT Member James Cook University is a comprehensive university, providing a world-class education to more than 21,000 students. With locations in Townsville, Cairns, Singapore, Brisbane, Mackay, Mount Isa and Thursday Island, JCU is an integral part of the North Queensland community and a major contributor to its economy.

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