New England cattle grazier John Winter has an unusual skill set that goes beyond breeding champion steers.
As a chemical and process engineer he spent 20 years specialising in chemical looping principles, fluid bed technology and mineral sand applications.
He has combined his life experience to create a machine that has the ability to assay mineral sands and manufacture a stable carbon structure known as bio-char, with the potential to improve value and productivity of agricultural lands.
The resilient carbon structure is lately attracting renewed interest from international companies, like Microsoft and Shopify, who are clamouring to invest in products and methods that draw down carbon from the atmosphere so as to make themselves more climate friendly.
As a result the price paid to manufacture biochar on an emerging overseas market has tripled in the last six months reaching $100 a tonne - which will act as a sweetener to encourage more of this sort of production in Australia.
John Winter's remarkable invention has an ability to not only produce bio char but also carbon negative energy in a design that can scale-up to meet industrial requirements in an economically compelling fashion.
Mr Winter's career progression began during his early days on-farm, welding broken gates as a schoolboy and later helping his father build a parsnip washer using old oil drums housing a mixer paddle driven with a second-hand differential.
"I was the first person in my family to study beyond year 10," he said. "And a good wool cheque the year before I started university allowed me to go down this path."
Mr Winter's pyrolytic gasifier runs on its own fuel once feedstock has started to char. The design makes clever use of mineral sands to transfer energy internally, so the ability to scale up in volume - not size - suits industrial applications.
That design difference is the key to making an industrial sized machine suitable for the enormous demand for sequestered carbon.
The process turns any organic waste - from sewage sludge and dirty mine water to abattoir effluent and invasive native scrub - into stable carbon, or char, that will build and improve soil productivity.
It can also capture and create carbon negative energy - suitable for export, as well as local use. The only exhaust is nitrogen and a little oxygen as it's final "waste".
Hydrogen released during the char process is captured in the gas, adding kilojouls and bringing syn gas from wood waste close to the value of fossil gas, making it useful as a commodity and marketable because it is carbon negative - as the char is stable for hundreds of years.
His technology is based on proven processes and simple components, with no high pressure and temperatures not much more than the home fire and pretty much runs itself. It might take two people to operate - one to load feedstock and another to be there for safety.
Biochar gets a second look
If beef producers intend to uphold MLA's promise of carbon neutrality by 2030 they need to do something that actually draws down atmospheric carbon and puts in it the ground under their herd, where it can do some good.
Biochar is a proven product that can do this, with a team of scientists reporting in September that "On average, biochar increases crop yields by about 16 per cent and halves emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas."
Overseas the concept has been well embraced, with Finnish organisation Puro.earth coming up with an accredited scheme that rewards biochar producers for sequestering atmospheric carbon in a form that can last in soil for hundreds of years.
CEO of the Australia New Zealand Biochar Industry Group, Don Coyne, says Fortune 500 companies are now bidding for carbon offset credits to make their environmental footprint more manageable with the result that bio-char on this newly emerging open market has tripled in price over the last six months.
Meanwhile the char product - which can be enhanced with nutrient to make a slow release fertiliser while its green-energy gas is suitable for heat and power generation - can be sold separately to make the biochar economy a real deal.
Mr Coyne says Microsoft has invested in the Holla Fresh Bioenergy and Biochar Project at Mt Gambier, SA, purchasing the equivalent of 400 metric tonnes of CO2 - about 15pc of the first year's production which will convert structural waste timber into biochar.
The energy released from the process will be used to heat a one hectare greenhouse while the char itself - one tonne equals 2.88t CO2 - will be turned into compost for on farm or nursery use.
Meanwhile Queensland's Logan City Council is building a biochar plant to treat sewage sludge, with the energy produced used to de-water the waste and to help power the plant.
DPI agronomist, Annette Cowie - Principal research scientist in the organisation's climate branch at Armidale - says the uses for biochar are expanding all the time, with the stable carbon now used as an ingredient in bricks, concrete and bitumen paving with evidence suggesting the material improves strength and reduces cracking.
She said research is beginning to suggest that biochar in the rumen can manage methane production by absorbing the greenhouse gas at its source and sequestering into soil through manure - a potential game changer for the beef industry.
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