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GrainCorp sketches plans for renewable fuel, extra meal

Emma Alsop, May 31, 2024

GrainCorp’s Numurkah site is Australia’s largest oilseed-crushing site, and the company is kicking around plans to build an even bigger one at a yet-to-be-determined site. Photo: GrainCorp

AUSTRALIA’S largest oilseed crusher, GrainCorp, is betting big on renewable fuels, and can see itself opening a new refinery as soon as 2026, with potential to build more crushing plants in the future.

Speaking at this week’s CSIRO Protein Futures event held in Sydney, GrainCorp’s chief innovation and growth officer Jesse Scott said GrainCorp was also looking into novel, non-food crops to eventually replace canola as a feedstock, as well as exploring new markets for the meal byproduct.

In his address, Mr Scott discussed the challenges and opportunities faced by the renewable fuels industry and agribusinesses looking to supply high-volume industries such as aviation and mining, and said GrainCorp’s decision about where to build its new crush plant will be made “hopefully this year”.

“It will take about two years to build this thing, so in 2026 we will be producing these products here,” Mr Scott said.

GrainCorp initially pointed to a Western Australian site for the new plant, but it has recently indicated both east and west-coast locations as being up for consideration.

Earlier this month, GrainCorp announced it had handled a record 282,000 tonnes of canola for the six months to March 31, with volumes expected to remain strong for the rest of the year.

The company currently has more than 500,000t of annual crush capacity, with its Numurkah plant in Victoria handling most of this volume.

Mr Scott said the renewable fuels industry was “one of GrainCorp’s main growth areas” and that the company “would like to build two of these [crush] plants”.

“GrainCorp is Australia’s biggest canola crusher, and we have a facility in [Western Australia] and Victoria but the renewable fuel industry is a different ag venture.

Both Numurkah and the Pinjarra plant in WA were purchased by GrainCorp through its  2012 acquisition of Gardner Smith’s Riverland Oilseeds, and GrainCorp is now seeking to build a third hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) plant.

“The hungriness of these new HEFA refineries…requires us to build a million-tonne crush plant rather than what we thought was a big one which is 400,000t.

“The scale of these things are huge.”

Feedstock options

Mr Scott said GrainCorp was aware of the ongoing debate in Europe regarding the use of canola as a main feedstock for renewable fuels considering the competing imperative to feed a growing global population.

He said in the short term, GrainCorp would just be value-adding canola.

“At the moment, most of our canola is going overseas to be turned into fuel.

“Australia grows on average about 5 million tonnes of canola and of that, about 3Mt is sent to Europe to be turned into a renewable fuel over there.”

He said GrainCorp’s end goal was to “stop using canola and transition towards non-food crops”.

Mr Scott identified safflower, carinata and camelina as possible replacements.

“There is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem, where you need a live or strong signal that we will buy the stuff off (growers) in order to get them to grow it in order to have enough to buy.

“We just need to get that cycle going.

“Canola will get (us) going and all we are doing at the moment is redirecting European renewable fuel canola back on-shore, and then we are going to redivert that to novel crops.”

Options for meal

Mr Scott said GrainCorp was currently grappling with a larger problem with where to direct the meal byproduct from the crush process.

“It is relatively imminent for when we will need a solution for that particular problem.

“A million-tonne crush plant spits out 600,000t of canola meal or carinata meal or camelina meal.

“What do you do with 600,000t of meal-rich product that doesn’t have a market yet?

“We are working with folks like CSIRO to look at how do you take that stuff that nobody wants and turn it into good feed products or good food products.”

He said this problem will be compounded if GrainCorp opts to construct more plants “and heaven forbid I will have 2Mt of meal to get rid of every year”.

Mr Scott said the stockfeed sector, especially if a plant was operational in Queensland, home to most Australia’s cattle on feed, would be “the natural home” for the meal, but more value-add would be required to “get higher margin and markets for it”.

He said GrainCorp, as one of the founders of asparagopsis IP owner FutureFeed, was investing ways to combine meal with the novel algae stockfeed supplement.

“If someone can figure out how to grow this stuff in enough commercial quantity, then we would happily feed the asparagopsis into those feedlots to not only get rid of the canola meal I have too much of, but sell it in a way that is a methane-reducing feed.

“It is a great combination.”

Mr Scott called on industry to consider the problem facing the renewable fuels sector.

“We are working with a couple of different start-ups; we spent time with CSIRO trying to think about how do you adopt different manufacturing processes for these meals to remove anti-nutritionals and bitterness.

“Then we do the sensory trials.

“It is going okay, but if anyone has any ideas, I’m very open because we have this growing problem.”

In November last year, GrainCorp signed a memorandum of understanding with IFM Investors to conduct feasibility studies on sustainable fuel production in Australia.

The studies were to investigate feedstock supply, including waste and residues, crop-based oils, and bio-organics.

Through the $30 million corporate venture capital fund, GrainCorp is also investing in start-ups dedicated to resolving some of the issues facing renewable fuels producers.

Australia is considered well placed to support a renewable fuel or SAF industry.

CSIRO has found that Australia has sufficient feedstock to produce approximately 5 billion litres of SAF and supply around 50 percent of forecast jet fuel demand in 2025.

 

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