RMIT tech turns waste into biochar

The PYROCO Mark 2 pilot unit at Melton Water Recycling Plant. (Seamus Daniel)

New technology developed by RMIT that turns waste into reusable goods for energy and agricultural applications is a step closer to commercialisation, following rigorous trials.

The Australian-made innovation uses high temperatures without oxygen to make a carbon-rich biochar, which can be used in carbon electrodes for batteries and other advanced energy storage devices or can act as a fertiliser or soil amendment.

The pyrolysis technology, known as PYROCOTM, thermally processes materials from waste streams, including treated sewage (biosolids) and food and garden organic materials destined for landfill, to remove pathogens, PFAS and microplastics, which can cause harm to humans and the environment. RMIT has filed patent applications to protect the technology that the team has developed.

Project lead Professor Kalpit Shah, from RMIT University, said the technology could help make the management of biosolids and other waste more environmentally sustainable and cost-effective.

“Around 30 per cent of the world’s biosolids are either stockpiled or sent to landfill, which is a big challenge that PYROCO aims to address,” said Shah, Deputy Director (Academic) of the ARC Training Centre for Transformation of Australia’s Biosolids Resource.

The technology has undergone a series of trials

RMIT and project partners South East Water, Intelligent Water Networks (IWN) and Greater Western Water have  completed the latest series of trials of the technology at the Melton Recycled Water Plant.

“The latest trials validated results of the first trials and showed further improvements,” Shah said.

During the first trials in 2021, the PYROCO demonstration unit turned biosolids into biochar and removed all pathogens, PFAS and microplastics.

The latest trials for PYROCO Mark 2 went further by using materials from other waste streams, and demonstrated enhanced safety features and automation.

“The Mark 2 unit processed food and garden organic waste as well as canola straw co-mingled with biosolids to create biochar,” Shah said.

“The trials we’ve just completed are an exciting step towards scaling up this innovative pyrolysis technology to prove the findings and operationalise it – this represents a real step-change in the field.”

rmit waste
Feedstock from a waste stream such as food and garden organics and treated sewage is turned into  biochar, which can be used in carbon electrodes for batteries and other advanced energy storage devices or act as a fertiliser or soil amendment. (Seamus Daniel)

Next steps

Following the latest trials, the partners are now progressing towards commercialisation.

South East Water General Manager Research, Innovation and Commercialisation, Daniel Sullivan, said the project could potentially address the water industry’s challenge of biosolids disposal, while also removing carbon from the atmosphere.

“We believe that this exciting technology has the potential to transform by-products of the wastewater process into a valuable resource, in a way that is the most carbon-efficient while maximising the quality of the biochar,” he said.

Deputy Director (Industry) of the ARC Training Centre for Transformation of Australia’s Biosolids Resource, Dr Aravind Surapaneni, said the technology could help achieve progress towards Victoria’s net-zero carbon pledge.

“The European Union has highlighted the potential of biochar in breaking the carbon cycle, and we see this technology as an opportunity for the water industry to support the Victorian Government’s path to net-zero emissions by 2045.”

Support for the project

The Victorian Government, through the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action (DEECA) contributed $100,000 to the $1 million project.

RMIT University, South East Water, IWN, Greater Western Water, Barwon Water, Westernport Water and East Gippsland Water co-funded the remainder of the project.

The PYROCO Mark 2 pilot unit was commissioned and installed at the Melton Water Recycling Plant. It was built using the funding received from Victorian Higher Education State Investment Fund (VHESIF).

Steve McGhie MP, Victorian Government Cabinet Secretary and Member for Melton, visited the pilot project during the latest trials.

“This project demonstrates how the water industry and science can work together to deliver great outcomes for both our environment and our economy,” McGhie said.



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