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AgBioEn sparks renewables revolution with data and AI injection

Melbourne based renewable energy company, AgBioEn, leads a $2 billion pioneering initiative to turn agricultural waste into renewable fuels.

Not just any old agricultural waste though; AgBioEn wants to be part of a virtuous cycle that starts with high yield crops grown sustainably. The waste from those crops is intended to be processed by the company to provide renewable diesel, bio-jet fuel, LPG, heat (for on-farm glasshouses), food grade liquified CO² and a soil nutrient that can be ploughed back to grow more crops.

AgBioEn has three key divisions, Agriculture, Bioenergy and Environment. The Agriculture division is currently exploring innovative ways to grow better crops that achieve an increased yield in the grain or cobb, higher biomass, more carbon sequestered in the soil and use less water.

This reduces costs in the food to fuel supply chain while also reining in the overall environmental footprint of farming and fuel manufacture. Building a fuel manufacturing capacity in Australia also reduces Australia’s reliance on international producers and improves the nation’s fuel security.

Working with La Trobe University and Microsoft partner LAB3, AgBioEn is running a series of on-farm trials, growing different crops under different conditions. It has used IoT sensors and devices to monitor the health and growth of the crops with telemetry and drone data held in an Azure Cloud Edge Computing Platform. Data analytics tools and dashboards are available for La Trobe researchers as well as farmers that partner with the company.

Crop trials will continue for the next three to four years, while AgBioEn will complete the design of its fuel manufacturing facility this year, with construction scheduled to start early next year with fuel produced from 2023.

Over the next four to five years AgBioEn plans to invest $1.2 billion in its Renewable Energy and Fuels Facility that will turn agricultural waste (biomass) into fuel, and a further $800 million in 100,000 hectares of cropping land. Its plan is for agricultural waste (biomass) sourced from farms within a 200 Km radius of the fuels facility to be able to be turned into renewable fuels.

Ultimately it plans to produce 150 million litres of fuel each year.

Lubey Lozevski, is the program director for AgBioEn and explains the critical role that data and analytics are performing during the crop trials. “AgBioEn was looking for organisations with a strong IT presence and knowledge in the IoT space. LAB3 came up on our radar over two years ago and we have continually been discussing our project and planned crop trials and how to capture data that will help us complete our research to make improvements in crop performance.”

LAB3 has helped design the crop testing system which sees data from farm-based sensors and drones uploaded via LoRaWan networks into an Azure IoT Hub. Stream analytics performs an initial analysis of the data which is stored in an Azure Data Lake and available for analysis through Azure Cosmos DB.

Lubey Lozevski,  program director for AgBioEn

Sensors collect data that reveal the crop yield, the biomass density and soil moisture levels. In all there are 16 different sorts of soil probes deployed while an additional manual test reveals the level of carbon being sequestered in the soil.

Even more data is sourced from drones which fly over the crops, capturing images that can be used to interpret the health of the crop and to check for evidence of pest or diseases. Ten different parameters can be gauged from the drone collected images.

Data can be analysed by La Trobe researchers while telemetry reports can be served direct to a SensorMine app on a farmer’s phone along with email alerts. These, for example, could advise the farmer to check crops for disease or pests, or recommend that watering is reduced if the moisture in the soil is sufficient.

During the initial crop trial more than 500,000 data points have been captured for researchers to analyse, with data continually double checked by researchers during the trials to ensure accuracy. According to Lozevski; “The data provides valuable insights into the health of the crop, and also early identification of disease and pests.”

La Trobe scientists report that data from the soil moisture probes have delivered often surprising real time insights about how different soil management can alter the way rain water or irrigation water permeates the soil. According to Dr Jen Wood; “We observed positive crop responses in treatments that we did not predict to show improvements, surprisingly the data from the soil probes – particularly plant soil water use at depth – have given us insight into below ground processes that may be driving these responses.”

Dr Peter Sale and Dr Gary Clark add that data from the soil moisture probes provided surprising insights into how different soil management treatments altered the way rainfall and irrigation water can infiltrate into different soil layers as well as how the captured soil water is being taken up from different soil layers by crop roots – all in in real time.

This data from the soil probes drives understanding about water gains, storage capacity and losses in the root zone in real time, which will be pivotal in improving water use efficiency in cropping soils.

Lozevski says already crop improvements of around 30 per cent are being recorded as a result of better insights to optimise farm management.

Alain Blanchette, director Data, IoT and AI at LAB3 says; “This is one of the most fascinating programs of work we have ever been involved with and promises multiple layers of benefit- all the way from farm to fuel.

We have leveraged the broad Azure ecosystem and a range of advanced IoT and cognitive services to build a platform that will grow with AgBioEn as it expands into fuel production and explores exciting national and international opportunities.

LAB3 will partner with AgBioEn across all three business units and will provide artificial intelligence and analytics across the entire supply chain including the farms, the renewable energy and fuels facility and all the logistics. This will ultimately integrate IoT data as well as information from operational technology and SCADA systems.

Tackling climate change

By starting at the front end of the process, actually on the farm, AgBioEn has the best chance of achieving cost effective, more sustainable fuel production. Its overarching objective is to create renewable fuels, which have 80 per cent lower emissions than fossil equivalents, and key to addressing climate change.

While AgBioEn’s initial focus is in Victoria, it is exploring potential projects in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland as well as further afield.

According to Lozevski; “In Australia there’s over 35 billion litres of diesel burned every year and about 8 billion litres of jet fuel. So we talk about these small numbers of (us producing) 150 million litres per site – with 10 sites, that’s 1.5 billion litres. So it’s a very small dent into the market, but the intent for us is to keep on growing in Australia and around the world. We’ve got interests out of Europe, Asia, and the US as well.”

The Azure based solution that LAB3 has designed would deliver both the geographic reach and scale that AgBioEn would need to expand.

Lozevski explains that during the one-year pilot of the fuel production facility, it will achieve 25 per cent of capacity. “Phase one will use somewhere around 180,000 tons of waste per annum,” with plans to eventually process around 750,000 tons per annum of agricultural waste, producing about 150 million litres of fuel with emissions 8-9 per cent lower than traditional fossil fuels.

“It is really important from the point of view of addressing the greenhouse gas emission climate change.” In addition he says that;

We are seeing a lot more demand globally now after the COVID pandemic where people want more fuel security in their countries.

“The fuel that we will create will be the same price as fossil fuel, yet it’s better performing. It’s about 2-3 per cent more efficient than fossil, so you actually get a better performance out of it. And then it gives you a lower emissions as well,” adds Lozevski.

AgBioEn’s circular approach is designed to deliver benefits at each stage of the process.

Lozevski explains; “We want to grow more food for the world in a smaller parcel of land. Then, as a by-product, we get the biomass to create renewable energy and fuels, which are more efficient than fossil and also reduce the carbon emissions.

“The third thing from an environmental point of view is to increase the amount of emissions that are captured. So with our technology, basically in a 12-month period once we’re in full production, we’ll save anywhere up to 500,000 tons of CO² emissions per annum compared to fossil fuels. So from an environmental point of view is making sure it’s clean and green as well.

“It’s growing food, green energy, and lower emissions for climate change,” – all powered by data and AI.

Solar wind farm adjacent to agricultural area
AgBIoEn is Australia’s first fully integrated, carbon negative, renewable enregy and fuels project -underpinned by world class technology (Source: Luke Thornton)