- Apply an old technology in a new way
- Consider other applications for the technology other than the intended industry
Andrew Briggs, a project manager for the North East Catchment Management Authority (NECMA), says that 'large quantities of woody weed are historically disposed through burning, but this practice is becoming less palatable'.
Earth Systems, a Victorian environmental technology development firm, saw in NECMA’s challenge an opportunity to put their expertise to use.
As principal engineer John Sanderson puts it, 'Biochar wasn’t a new thing. Charcoal production techniques have existed for thousands for years'. But NECMA wanted a transportable 'kiln' that could char the wood as and where it was found without chipping it.
Earth Systems progressed design options on paper and then worked through a series of small-scale model kilns. The team tested different configurations to see what would turn wood into charcoal quickest.
Usually the production of biochar requires two separate processes: a combustion process (with oxygen) that produces heat and then a pyrolysis process (without oxygen) that uses the heat to convert the biomass to char.
The innovation came in the Top Ignited Down Draft (TIDD) system. As Sanderson describes it, 'we basically cheated the process so we didn’t need two chambers. We were able to do both processes in the one chamber so it halved the construction cost.'
Adrian Morphett, a senior environmental engineer with Earth Systems says, 'biochar is very different to charcoal. It’s a carbon draw-down technology. You pyrolyse it, you lock the carbon up, you put that into the soil. It benefits the soil and it will stay there for a few thousand years'.
A wider application
The team has a number of possible applications for their biochar, including agricultural soil additions, waste water treatment trials, potting and gardening mixture trials and chemical spill clean-ups.
Earth Systems are now leasing the CharMaker MPP20 from NECMA, and using it to process woody waste into biochar for research work at James Cook University in Queensland.
The company is also building two new machines (one has been sold to a Queensland plantation waste management company) and targeting catchment and forestry industries that generate large volumes of woody waste in remote locations. There has been strong interest in New Zealand and Australia, where the company is currently focusing its efforts.
John Sanderson says, 'Even though it wasn't our intent to become a biochar producer, we're a technology company, we're pleased to keep the machine operating. It’s such a good marketing tool for us.'
This project was funded under the Victorian Government's Market Validation Program (MVP). The new Driving Business Innovation Program builds on the MVP.
NECMA received funding from the Market Validation Program to design a kiln to dispose of wood through a sustainable charcoal process called biochar.