Bamboo to fuel bio carbon factory in Malaysia for Aussie startup

Cosmos Magazine


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By Cosmos

An Australian start up which grew out of research at CSIRO is on the verge of opening its first large scale factory creating furnace ready biocarbon for heavy industry.

Pyrochar’s first production facility  will be in Malaysia and will use bamboo as its primary feedstock.

The site will initially produce enough material to enable steel mills, magnesium refineries & aluminium smelters around the world to test the biocarbon in their blast furnace, electic arc furnace, or relevant metal production facility.

The development is a big step on the pathway towards delivering steel that is manufactured without using fossil fuels.

Pyrochar is using a process developed by the CSIRO more than a decade ago. The novel technology produces, through pyrolysis, a metallurgical grade of biocarbon that is seen as a partial or full replacement for coal or coke in blast furnaces and electric arc furnaces.

The technology uses an auto-thermal slow pyrolysis process. This means that material in the reactor is heated only by the heat of pyrolysis reactions and does not require additional heat in any form.
Pyrochar’s CEO, Cameron Bell, says the key challenge around biocarbon is that it’s not as cost effective as coal, but unlike coal, there is money to be made in by-products.

“We have to make sure there’s a value derived from all the products created out of pyrolysis.

“If we just look to sell or use the biochar, or the BioCarbon, it ends up getting too high of a price and it’s no longer competitive with coal,” Bell says.

“We’ve captured the many other by-products that come out – the oil and the biogas, or syn-gas, which includes nitrogen, oxygen.  It’s got about 50% of the calorific value of natural gas coming out of the ground, and we’re utilising those as revenue products.”

Bamboo has significant strength

Bell says for every ten tonnes of bamboo, the pyrolysis produces 3t of biocarbon; 2t of oil and the gasses.

He says the process emissions are described as “net zero” because the initial raw material – bamboo – sequesters carbon in the growing phase.

“If you plant a bamboo plantation, the first three years are required to establish it, then after that, you get 100% yield every year of harvesting months.

“It’s quicker than any form of wood. Bamboo is a grass that thinks it’s a wood. So the other thing is its low ash content. The moisture content is high, but it dries.

“It’s got similar specs to a hardwood. Other grasses, or wheat or agriculture crops, are all very high in ash, which is actually very difficult for metallurgy. You really need a low ash content, which bamboo was perfect for.”

Pyrochar has established Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) and off-take agreements for biocarbon production. Bell says the trials are in the hundreds and sometimes thousands of tonnes. “In the Middle East, some in India, they need to do these large scale trials on their furnaces, which they’ve never done before. So that’s the first purpose of this stage of the plant.”

Pyrochar is ‘first-of-its-kind’ in an emerging market.

A little over a year ago Bluescope Steel at Port Kembla in New South Wales undertook a survey of biochar and now has internal approval to use it as a reductant to go up to a 30% blend in the furnace.

Gettyimages 477319424 bangladesh
Bamboo rafts on the Matamuhuri River in Bangladesh (Photo by Md. Akhlas Uddin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“It doesn’t count towards their emissions through the safeguard mechanism. So it allows them to lower their emissions.

“Our collaboration with CSIRO enables us to deliver this ground-breaking technology on a global scale, and we are committed to promoting sustainable steel production across the industry.”

CSIRO’s Adrien Guiraud, Principal Research Consultant – Processing, told CSIRO News: “Being able to efficiently produce large quantities of metallurgical grade biochar from sustainable biomass sources is a big step forward in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in steelmaking. And a reinforcement of Australia’s role in the steel supply chain globally.”

Biochar is part of the transition to green steel.

“I don’t see disruptive change to the iron and steel making process in the next two decades,” Keith Vining, the Research Group Leader in the Carbon Steels division at CSIRO told Cosmos. “I expect the changes to be largely incremental improvements to the current flow sheet and a greater reliance on scrap utilisation and increased uptake of agglomerated products like pellets.

“So with the Blast Furnace likely around for some time to come technologies like Pyrochar’s, have great potential to displace metallurgical coal from current practices with a renewable reductant and have a very short pathway to impact.”

Clarification May 6: Keith Vining did not say: “biochar isn’t a green-steel revolution.” That was an editorial interpretation, and Keith asked us to clarify.

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