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We may yet become a banana republic!

Paul Keating's memorable 1986 warning that Australia might become a banana republic may yet be proved literally correct. At a time when the price of mineral oil fuel has rocketed to a record level, there's talk in Queensland of vehicles being powered by fuel made from bananas, while in South Australia a company is promoting the idea of making paper from the trunks of banana trees.

A few weeks ago, the Sydney Morning Herald reported "Banana skins have been used to create a fuel replacement in what researchers say is a world-first study in Queensland."

Tony Heidrich, spokesman for the Australian Banana Growers' Council, which is seeking state and federal government funding to help establish a $550,000 fuel plant, said "It's not far-fetched and it's not rocket science - the technology exists and it's just a matter of applying it to bananas economically."

When we sought further comment, he told us: "I think bananas are only the first step for where this technology could end up. Some of my colleagues, who know more about this technology than I, think that in 10 years every new home will have one of these digesters attached to it that will process household green waste into green electricity which will be channelled back into the mains electricity grid."

The Council last year engaged Ergon Energy to manage the first stage of a research project, which included University of Queensland scientists. The researchers found it was economical to produce a fuel replacement from banana skins, but it was not economical to produce electricity compared with cheaper coal-fired electricity.

ABGC president Patrick Leahy said the research findings suggested that an anaerobic digestion facility capable of processing 6000 tonnes per annum of residues would produce the energy equivalent of 222,000 litres of diesel a year.

A year ago BBC World News reported that Australian engineers had created an electricity generator fuelled by decomposing bananas, and that they hoped to build a full size fruit-fired power station.

Much of Australia's annual banana crop was left to rot, because the fruit were bruised or too small to market. The researchers hoped to put the rejects to good use, and suggested that a banana-fuelled power plant capable of powering 500 homes could be built.

Papyrus Australia Ltd, the newly-formed South Australian company hoping to make paper from banana trees, says on its website:

Papyrus takes an abundant waste product and makes paper in an economical process that uses no chemicals, no water, and about 1% of the energy conventionally used.

Banana trees only live for about a year, and after the bunch is harvested, the tree is allowed to rot down. In banana trees, the fibres run the full length of the tree, compared to around 1mm in wood-chip.

Our process takes advantage of the properties of this waste material, in a process that has more similarities to the production of plywood than to paper. No toxic chemicals or water is needed, and the process uses a fraction of the energy of a typical wood-chip paper plant.

"The banana paper project started in Adelaide in 1995," Ramy Azer, managing director of Papyrus Australia Ltd. told us by email. "We have been conducting R&D at the University of Adelaide and with the help of Government grants and private equity for more than nine years.

"Now we are listed on the Australian Stock Exchange with a budget to build the first commercial banana paper factory, to be operational in 12 to 18 months."

  • In a memorable radio interview in 1986, Paul Keating, Federal Treasurer, who was destined to become Australia's Prime Minister (1991-96), referred to the relative size of our foreign debt to GDP. He said the nation was in danger of becoming a banana republic.

Banana republic (or Bananaland) is a pejorative term for describing a country with a non-democratic or unstable government, especially where there is widespread political corruption and strong foreign influence. It is most often applied to small countries in Central America or the Caribbean.
- Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia.

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Story first posted October 2005

Copyright 2005

Eric Shackle

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