• Researchers Convert Invasive Acacia Species to Bio-Products as a Potential Alternative to Oil and Gas
Researchers Convert Invasive Acacia Species to Bio-Products as a Potential Alternative to Oil and Gas

An interfaculty research team is working on an alternative solution to manage the growth of invasive Acacia species in Brunei.  The research team comprised Dr Rahayu Sukmaria Sukri from the Faculty of Science/Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Research (FOS/IBER), Dr Muhd Saifullah Abu Bakar and Dr Abdul K Azad from the Faculty of Integrated Technologies (FIT), and Ashfaq Ahmed, a PhD student in Chemical and Process Engineering.

The research takes on a multidisciplinary approach to tackle contemporary changes. Dr Saifullah explained that the study aims to find ways to produce renewable fuels and products and reduce the loss of biodiversity in Brunei. By converting the Acacia species to biofuel through pyrolysis, the team will not only reduce the number of invasive Acacias in the country, but  also produce something useful out of it. The initiative is a good resource and feedstock for Brunei Darussalam if the country were to one day embark on a potential bio-refinery industry, Dr Saifullah said.

The project is conducted on small-scale in a laboratory and will be completed in two stages. Firstly, the properties of biomass will be evaluated so that a suitable pyrolysis process can be designed. In the second stage, the biomass will be pyrolysed to produce the biofuel and the characterisation of the product will be carried out to obtain its quality and yield.

Acacias are fast-growing invasive plants which pose a serious threat to the biodiversity of Brunei Darussalam. Despite its rapid growth rate, it is a good source of high quality lignocellulosic biomass to produce biofuel. With the abundance of good quality and quantity of biomass Acacia found in Brunei, the research team have aptly chosen Acacia to be used as the research sample. Ashfaq added that the team is “solving a problem and creating an added value simultaneously”.

During pyrolysis, biomass is heated to an elevated temperature in the absence of oxygen to evaporate all the volatile matter to form vapours. The vapours are then condensed to obtain liquid bio-oil, solid biochar (charcoal produced from plant matter) and non-condensable gases which contain light hydrocarbon and syn-gas.

Bio-products are fuels, chemicals and materials derived from renewable resources. The term bio-products used in this project “describes that pyrolysis products can also be used for bio-products, instead of utilising them for energy purposes”.

Liquid bio-oil contains a complex mixture of chemicals that can be used as feedstock to produce bio-plastics, which is an alternative replacement for petroleum-derived plastics. The bio-oil produced from pyrolysis can be used directly in boilers to produce steam for electricity generation or for general heating purposes.

Biochar, on the other hand, can be used to make activated carbon and absorbent to treat wastewater, removing oil spills and as soil remediator to increase agricultural productivity and restore degraded land. It can also be used as fuel for energy production, especially as a substitute in a coal-fired power plant.

Biofuel is synthesised from renewable resources especially plant biomass, vegetable oil or treated municipal and industrial waste. It can be in liquid, gaseous or solid form, and is considered as renewable fuel as it does not contribute any extra quantity of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the environment, compared to fossil fuel. In other words, the combustion or usage of biofuel is considered CO2 neutral; CO2 is released into the environment and absorbed by living plants, resulting in no additional release of CO2. Since CO2 is known to contribute to global warming, biofuel does not have any negative impact on the environment and is considered as “green fuel”.

Bio-refinery is a plant that integrates different biomass conversion processes to produce food, fuel, heat, and value-added products. This concept is similar to a petroleum refinery, although the difference lies in its feedstock being biomass-based.

The research is exhibited at the Convocation Festival, or Pesta Konvo, from October 6 to 22. The project began in November 2015 and will continue for the next three years. The team hopes to build a pilot or demonstration plant in order to produce biofuel on a larger scale. In the long run, there are hopes to commercialise the research method and contribute to the economic development of Brunei.

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