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Poo-powered planes could be the future of aviation

A sewage byproduct could soon be converted into renewable jet fuel to make air travel a more sustainable mode of transport in the future.

Southern Oil Refining is piloting a system that will turn biosolids, a byproduct of wastewater treatment, into crude oil. The company will then use their existing facilities for re-refining waste oils, such as engine oils, to upgrade the crude oil to renewable diesel and possibly renewable jet fuel.

The ability to turn human waste byproducts into jet fuel has the potential to lessen the environmental impacts of the fossil fuel-guzzling aviation industry, which accounted for about 7.5 per cent of worldwide oil demand in 2016.

oil re-refinery facility

Southern Oil Refining facility

The new project has been backed by the Australian government, with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) today handing $4 million to Southern Oil Refining to get the pilot project off the ground.

Costing $11.8 million in total, a primary expense will be building a demonstration scale hydrothermal liquefaction reactor that is required to turn biosolids into renewable crude oil.

The plant will treat up to one million litres of biosolids a year using a thermochemical conversion process to produce a biocrude.

The company has been granted access to stockpiled biosolids in Melbourne Water’s wastewater treatment facility at Werribee, and will also tap into biosolid supplies from a local sewage treatment facility.  

There are currently over 300,000 tonnes of biosolids produced annually through sewage treatment in Australia, which can be stockpiled.

Although it is unclear how efficiently biosolids can be converted into crude oil, managing director of Southern Oil Refining Tim Rose says that with current stockpiles “this project is entirely scalable and I believe will ultimately lead to the production of hundreds of millions of litres of renewable fuel each year in Australia”.

“This outcome would greatly benefit the environment, be tremendous for the economy while improving Australia’s fuel security,” he added.

Federal environment minister Josh Frydenberg said on Thursday: “With Australia producing over 300,000 tonnes of biosolids through sewage treatment annually, it makes sense to look for options for commercialising its disposal.

“Bioenergy projects not only provide a possible alternative to the stockpiling of waste, but also have the potential to help with Australia’s fuel security.”

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