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The Bio-Protection Research Centre at Lincoln Uni is co-ordinating a $4million research programme to establish a New Zealand biodiesel feedstock industry on less productive land.
The project reflects concerns around the cost of fuel and the impact of biofuels on the price of basic foods such as grain and milk. The project is funded by the Government's Foundation for Research Science and Technology (FRST) and has global fuel company Chevron as a principal industry partner.
The project supports proposed legislation which will require oil companies to introduce biofuels. If the Biofuels Bill is passed into law there will be a sales obligation of 0.5 per cent from October 1, increasing to 2.5 per cent in 2012.
The research team will apply unique non-GM biotechnology, world class agronomy and ecological engineering methods to produce affordable, low impact fuels that are also ethically sound.
Project leader Steve Wratten, Professor of Ecology, says the research aims to clear several sustainability hurdles by targeting mainly non-food crops, measuring total energy inputs and outputs, and leaving top quality land for food production.
The six-year project acknowledged the need to have sustainability criteria defined and locked in at the beginning of the search for the best species to crop. It demanded broad collaboration with many partners in industry, he said.
"The cost of the feedstock is about 80% of the total cost of making biodiesel, and so it's essential to produce high-yielding raw material as efficiently as possible. At the same time we need to ensure there is low environmental impact, or no impact at all, so that there is less land being taken out of food production."
The project arose out of a study commissioned in 2007, by Chevron New Zealand, in which Lincoln University scientists made a preliminary assessment of potential New Zealand fuel crop species. They concluded there are crop species with "distinct promise" of yielding high-energy biofuels.
The company will be the principal commercial partner in the research, contributing joint-funding and commercial expertise through its global alternative energy company, Chevron Technology Ventures.
The project has a focus on Maori-owned land, most of which is marginal for food production. The proprietors of Taharoa C Block Incorporated (King Country) and Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu are key partners, providing technical input and field trial management.