Converting wine leftovers into biofuel

It’s one of the nation’s biggest food waste issues, but a CQUniversity researcher hopes leftovers from Australian wine production can help power a cleaner future.

With 1.3 billion litres of wine produced in Australia every year, the industry also creates 350 kilotonnes of leftover skins and seeds, known as grape marc or pomace.

The CSIRO says it’s the biggest food loss stream in Australian horticulture, but CQUniversity mechanical engineering academic Dr Heena Panchasara has big plans for diverting it from landfill, and into green energy.

Panchasara shared her progress on CQUniversity’s new product IMPACT, exploring groundbreaking research projects and their real-world impact.

“Wineries don’t know what to do with this waste, it just goes into the landfill and pollutes the land,” she said. “With the amount of grape marc produced, there is a lot of potential here, but the challenge is not just producing the fuel, it’s also to have a sustainable waste management.”

Panchasara’ s research builds on other research projects to create grapeseed oil from wine waste, but she said that process still created considerable waste, as skins and stems weren’t used.

“What I am looking at is using the stems, and the skins, and every bit of the waste, removing the dirt from it, and converting it to useful biofuel, it is challenging but I think we can do it,” she said.

Panchasara, who is co-director of CQUniversity’s Clean Energy Academy, said the project partners with the Australian wine industry and other CQU researchers, and utilises reactor technology and laboratories at the Rockhampton North campus.

While COVID-19 has delayed process testing, Panchasara said the next 12 months will see a pilot biofuel product.

“We also have the technology to convert that waste into electricity (a project that has recently been kicked off with an industry partner) , or to create biodiesel or even automotive engine fuel (current ongoing project),” she said.

The project is a personal passion for Dr Panchasara, who has never been a wine drinker, but discovered the potential of wine waste following her PhD in clean energy and renewable fuels finding solutions towards combatting climate challenges.

“Now is the time to explore our own backyard, and our own industries, to see what waste streams could be made useful, and how they could help a more sustainable future,” she said.

Panchasara said she’d love to see a future in the wine industry where wineries had on-site waste conversion plants, to power their facilities and even fuel their tour buses.

“I am picturing the side of the bus showing the process, and promoting that it’s powered by wine waste – education would be such an important part of this process,” she said.